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Success with Sunflower

Saturday, November 2, 2002
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Success with Sunflower

What has fed sunflower’s expansion and profitability on the Richard farm in southwest N.D.? At the forefront is a proven ability to custom-fit this crop into his farming conditions, along with a willingness to embrace new technologies and marketing opportunities.

Sweeping vistas of range land and wheat fields are much more common across the southwestern corner of North Dakota than is the sight of blooming sunflower fields. But producers in the seven counties comprising the state’s southwest crop reporting district do consistently plant 40,000 to 50,000 acres of ‘flowers each year. That compares with an average of fewer than 9,400 acres during 1991-95.

Byron Richard is one of those who have stuck with -and expanded -sunflower in his rotation. The Belfield, N.D., producer planted about 1,700 ‘flower acres in 2002, up nearly six-fold from the 300 acres seeded during his initial sunflower years in the 1980s. The longevity and success of his sunflower program- coupled with the visibility of his vigorous seed and chemical supply business, Dakota Ag Seeds, Inc.- has made him a leader on the area’s sunflower production scene.

While 2001 was a “canola year” in the area, a hot summer in 2002 definitely tipped the scales in sunflower¹s favor. Richard normally sets a 1,500-pound sunflower yield goal, but admits that 1,300 is more realistic most years under his typically dry conditions. This year, however, some field portions hit a whopping 2,200 pounds, and as of mid-October he was projecting a 1,500- to 2,000-pound average across his entire acreage.

What has fed sunflower’s expansion and profitability on the Richard farm? At the forefront is a proven ability to custom-fit this crop into his farming conditions, along with a willingness to embrace new technologies and marketing opportunities.

Market Niche

Because of its semi-arid climate (15 to 16 inches of annual precipitation, on average), substantial percentage of minimum- and no-till acres and distance from processors, southwestern North Dakota has never been home to very many confection sunflower acres. Richard has always grown the oil-types, but now with a different twist. In recent years he has focused on the dehullable oil market niche- one in which confection

processors contract for large-seeded oil-type ‘flowers, dehull them and sell

the kernels to edible product customers.

Richard has found a few oil-type varieties to be particularly suited for the dehullable market due to their proclivity to produce larger seeds. He also has dropped his seeding rate (from 25,-26,000 per acre down to 20,-22,000) to increase average head size and harvest larger seeds for the dehullable market. The resulting dividends have been attractive, he reports, with premiums averaging from $1.25 to $1.50 per cwt. over base oil


The introduction of NuSun varieties with seed size suited for the dehullable oil market should add value for processors and growers, Richard adds, since the enhanced shelf-life of the mid-oleic NuSun seeds will make the dehulled oil kernels even more attractive to end users.

Seeding System

Yearly variety plots on his farm underscore the importance Richard places on (1) his area-wide seed business and (2) learning which varieties perform best on his own farm. But the evolution of sunflower seeding in his Stark County fields goes well beyond variety selection. Ten years ago he decided to forego the conventional row-crop planter in favor of solid seeding his ‘flowers with an air drill-one of the first in the area to do so. (He estimates that 80% of the sunflower seeds he sold this year were planted with an air drill.)

Richard’s reasons were similar to those of other sunflower growers who utilize air drills: make better use of an expensive fixed asset and cover more acres in a shorter period of time. He also wanted to move deeper into a minimum-till/no-till production system and felt the air drill seeding system would facilitate that transition.

In recent years, Richard has been utilizing a 64-foot air seeder behind a three-tank Bourgault 5440 cart. The sunflower rows have been on 10-inch spacings. Mid-row banders deep-band his nitrogen, with the seed and starter fertilizer coming down the shank side.

Richard presently considers himself a “minimum-till” rather than “no-till” producer. “We direct-seed our crops,” he relates. “But we’re not afraid to harrow to achieve some residue management or create a little soil temp warm-up.” Given the importance of spring moisture conservation in this typically dry climate, he¹ll disturb, at most, only the top inch of soil with the harrow activity.

Though quite satisfied with the performance of his air drill, Richard is tentatively planning to purchase a no-till vacuum planter, fitted with row cleaners, for the coming year. The main reason? Singulation. Given his primary market focus - dehullable oils – “we need uniformity in head size, because now we¹re looking for a screened, gradable product,” he explains. “With conventional oils, we didn¹t worry about that.”

While the benefits of singulation won¹t be as large in an average or above-average moisture year, “theres more risk trying to grow a graded product in a dry year,” Richard points out. “If we get into a dry year, I think singulation is going to become very important.”

Weed Control

Like most minimum- or no-till sunflower producers in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Richard¹s biggest challenge was weed control due to the lack of labeled herbicides. That was part of the reason he moved into solid-seeded ‘lowers ‹ i.e., the higher population and narrower rows translated into a quicker and thicker crop canopy that helped suppress weed


Going into fields that are as clean as possible has always been a high priority for Richard -and particularly so since implementing a solid-seeding system for sunflower. So his weed control program starts the preceding fall with a Roundup burndown on the harvested wheat or corn ground (spot spraying, if feasible).

Prior to the availability of Spartan for sunflower, Richard relied on the Roundup treatment, followed by Sonalan granules and an in-season grass product. While he doesn’ question granular Sonalan¹s effectiveness when adequately incorporated, “t doesn¹t have the best fit where we¹re trying to do minimum- or no-till,”Richard says.

”Spartan has dramatically improved our weed control program,” he affirms, adding that it will be even more important if he goes to the no-till vacuum planter and holds seeding rates down in that 20,-22,000 range.

This past season, Richard applied a preplant tank mix of Roundup and Spartan. He believes the tank mix did tie up some of the Roundup, however, so next year he¹s planning to bump the Roundup rate from 18 to 24 ounces. He’s also planning to run a heavy harrow over the treated ground just prior to seeding to agitate the Spartan and hopefully optimize its performance.

Though he counts on the Spartan for summer-long control of his broadleaf problems (mainly Russian thistle and kochia), Richard says he still needs to apply a grass product (Select or Poast). So if looking at about $5.00 for the Roundup, $8.00 for Spartan and $7.00 for the grass herbicide, his total per-acre herbicide bill ends up around $20.

Richard is eagerly anticipating the introduction of Clearfield® (IMI) sunflower varieties, the first of which may be on the market by 2004. “I perceive the weed spectrum will be even easier to manage as more of these tools become available to us,” he remarks.

Insect Management

One advantage to growing sunflower in southwestern North Dakota is the relative lack of disease and insect problems. Historically, grasshoppers have been the main insect pest in area ‘flowers, followed by cutworms; but the red seed weevil has grabbed that dubious distinction the past couple seasons, according to Richard.

He has successfully countered the red seed weevil with the same cost-effective strategy used for grasshoppers: perimeter spraying: treating the field¹s outer 150 feet or so, plus adjacent road ditches and waterways. Richard emphasizes, however, that perimeter spraying is effective only if based on thorough, timely scouting. Inadequate scouting

or waiting too long to spray will allow the insects to gain the upper hand and necessitate spraying the entire field. – Don Lilleboe

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