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Confection Connection

Sunday, February 15, 2004
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Les Windjue sums up confection sunflowers like many who grow them do. “It’s a crop with a return that’s always been good to us,” Windjue says. Confection sunflower just needs to be monitored and managed accordingly, he says, which really is a concept that is no different than any other crop.

While Windjue has been growing confections on his farm near Devils Lake, N.D. since the mid 1970s, he hasn’t planted them in three or four years, because of midge problems. He grew confections again last year, and overall, was pleased with the results.

One field had a lot of water damage, yet still yielded 1,100 lbs/acre. The rest of his confection sunflower yielded about 1,700 to 1,800 lbs. He figures he’ll gross close to $290/acre through his confection contract in ’03, which offers a premium price for large seed size.

It’s important to stay ahead of weeds, he says. “That makes a big difference, I think.” Last year he used Sonalan for early-season weed control. Scouting for insects is critical too. In most years when he grows confections, Windjue sprays for insects at about 20% bloom. In 2003, however, he just had his fields sprayed a few hundred feet around the parameters. “We just didn’t find much of any insect activity this past year,” he says.

There was bird activity, but they didn’t damage his confections as much as he thought they would. It may have helped growing a hybrid with heads that droop down, making it more difficult for birds to perch on them.

Windjue at one time tried growing oil sunflower, but birds were actually more of a problem there than they were in his confections. There’s really no fool-proof technique to control them, he says. “You can drive by and shoot at them, and it makes you feel a bit better,” he quips. “But one thing I think can make a big difference is if you can control the cattails.”

Early last fall, Windjue took advantage of a USDA-APHIS Wildlife Services program, in which a labeled aquatic herbicide is applied on cattail areas which harbor threatening populations of blackbirds. “It’s the first time we’ve tried that. I’m curious to see how it does.” North and South Dakota landowners interested in the program should contact their state office of USDA Wildlife Services for more information. ND: 701-250-4405. SD: 605-224-8692

Site-specific sunflower

Soybeans and sugar beets are two mainstay broadleaf crops in the Red River Valley, but Wayne, Daryl, and Gary Wagner include confections in the crop rotation of their farm near Crookston, Minn.

“It’s been a profitable crop for us, and the cost of production is less than for other crops,” says Gary Wagner, pointing out that the seed cost alone is about $20/acre less for sunflower than for glyphosate-resistant soybeans. “Sunflowers help spread out our workload too. You put down your spring herbicides, plant it, cultivate it once, spray it once or twice by plane for insects, then harvest it. And you have to be mindful of too many acres of soybeans. We can get early snow, and by mid October, anything can happen. Sunflower is like production insurance in that respect.”

Like Windjue, they stress the importance of weed control. “Like kochia, where you may need to do some extra management, like harrow it or use higher rates of Sonolan, and even then control might not be 100%,” says Gary Wagner. Last year they used a combination of Sonolan and Eptam for weed control, but in the past have gotten by just with using Treflan. They don’t use Spartan, because of carryover residual that would affect sugar beets.

Wagner says the new crop insurance rule change allowing sunflower to follow glyphosate-ready soybeans will help weed control efforts in sunflower, to help clean up problem weeds before sunflower is planted.

In fact, they have noticed a positive plant response in sunflower following soybeans. “We tried it several years ago on a 30-acre piece, and on the yield map you could see exactly where the line was. The sunflower was a healthier plant, bigger stalk, and yielded better, just like wheat after soybeans,” says Gary, speculating that soybean’s nitrogen effect or better soil tilth following beans might make the difference.

This year the Wagners are growing 80 acres of confections following soybeans. But, Gary adds, there is the caveat of increased susceptibility to Sclerotinia in a really wet year. They usually plant sunflower after May 10 on the previous year’s sugar beet ground. It’s a good fit, Gary says, since sugar beets tend to dry out the soil, and sunflowers are good about rooting down to the subsoil and getting moisture and nutrients unused by the beets. Leftover beet tops also reduce the amount of fertilizing needed for the subsequent year’s sunflower crop.

A lot of farms in northwest Minnesota, including the Wagners, dropped sunflower after problems with the sunflower midge, but acreage and interest in sunflower is picking up again. The Wagners are still wary of the midge, however. “We had some sunflower last year in an area with alkali where beans do not work well. Some of our neighbors were doing the same thing, and too many acres of sunflower in a six to seven-mile area, that’s not good. And we did see some midge in the field margins. So we’re not going to plant any ‘flowers in that area, to try to help break up the cycle.”

The Wagner farm is recognized as an authority in the use of global positioning satellite (GPS) technology for site-specific farming, or precision ag. They have been using the technology for about 10 years. Gary even teaches on the subject at the nearby college. (See an overview of the Wagners’ use of precision ag written by Gary, online at

The Wagners use variable rate nutrient technology to apply fertilizer on their crops, including sunflower. Soil sampling determines what rates should be used and where the material is to be applied. Then, with an on-board computer together with GPS, they apply fertilizer in a precise manner, making nutrient adjustments based on the soil profile information.

They also use satellite imagery information to scout for sunflower insect problems. “The color schematic maps give a good indication of crop density, or the heaviest growth areas, and it seems like insects are attracted more to those better growth areas, so we’ll scout those areas more closely,” Gary says. The Wagners always spray at least their sunflower field borders for insects, and one or two passes over entire fields by plane if necessary.

The Wagners usually harvest sunflower when moisture falls to 12% moisture or under. “You can’t let them stand too long. Confection stalks won’t stand as long as oils. They’ll start to break if it gets too dry,” says Gary.

Economic return for soybeans and sunflower has been comparable. “A yield of about 38 bushel beans is pretty realistic for us. At a price of $7, we’d need 1,700 lb sunflowers to compare with the return on beans, and we’ve easily been doing 1,800 to 2,400 lbs. Plus, some years you don’t get $7 beans. Some years it’s closer to $5 beans.”

A Good complement to cotton

A three-inch rain came down earlier this year in Petersburg, Texas, just northeast of Lubbock. Bryan Fullingim, who farms near Petersburg, has been farming in the area since 1979, and says that’s the first January soaker people in the area can ever recall. “It boosted everyone’s spirits,” he says.

Fullingim says the semi-arid growing area recently has been desert-like, with 8 inches of total precipitation last year. “We had good rains in May and June, and then it quit,” he says.

Confection sunflower complements Fullingim’s “bread and butter” crop, which is cotton. He also grows some sorghum and wheat. He uses both flood (furrow) and center-pivot irrigation to water the soil profile before planting his crops. Thus, he waters before planting sunflower around the second week of April, and then waters his cotton ground before planting that crop at the end of May.

He turns water back on sunflower again at early bud, and then again at flowering. He’ll also irrigate cotton at bloom if need be. “Cotton is a dry crop, but once it starts fruiting, it needs the water,” he says.

Fullingim’s confections get about 16 inches of irrigation water over the typical growing season. “Our sprinklers are rated at about 3 ½ to 4 gallons per minute, but we could really use 5 to 6 gpm, because when sunflowers are budding they really need the water.”

He figures his irrigation cost averaged about $54/acre last year for all three crops he grew (sunflower, cotton, sorghum). A lot of growers paid even more than that. “It’s the cost of running the wells that’s killing us,” he says. The price of energy (mostly natural gas, some electricity) to run the wells has doubled in the past few years, from about $3.40 per thousand cubic feet of water, to over $6. It costs about $125 per day to run water from the Ogallala Aquifer to each of the eight different wells he uses for irrigation.

Still, Fullingim says that with a good contract price, good yields, and large confection seed size, irrigated confection sunflower offers him a profitable return. He shoots for a 2,000 lb/acre yield average for sunflower each year, and has yielded as much as 3,100 lbs/acre. Close to 70% of his confections this past year were over a 20/64 screen seed size. His ‘flowers don’t have far to travel once they’re harvested: the local elevator is six miles away, and the confection processor he contracts with in Lubbock is just 32 miles away.

Some growers in the High Plains who irrigate their crops have adopted subsurface drip irrigation to help regulate and conserve water use. But installing this technology can cost upwards of $800/acre. Fullingim adds that sunflower’s deep plant roots can also pose a problem with this irrigation method, potentially plugging SDI water metering emitters unless management steps are taken within the system to prevent root infiltration.

He tries to conserve as much crop residue and soil moisture as possible. About the only tilling he does is with a subsoiler (Paratill®) which loosens hardpan without disturbing soil structure.

Fullingim – who has a college degree in entomology – says cotton and sunflower have few insects or diseases in common. He doesn’t have problems with early season insects in his confection sunflower, but two aerial insecticide applications (with Scout X-TRA, tankmixed with an organophosphate like methyl parathion if need be) at bloom, mostly for head moth control, are virtually automatic. “We don’t even check the crop at that stage, we just spray it.”

He fertilizes his sunflower in the spring with 128 lbs/acre of nitrogen in the form of anhydrous ammonia, and 51 lbs of phosphate. It’s important to get the sunflower crop off to a fast start, Fullingim says. At planting, he prefers smaller-seeded hybrids that germinate quickly, have good stalk diameter, and of course, yield well with good seed size. “For a good stand, I want to see germination within three days,” he says. – Tracy Sayler

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