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“A Dry Weather Hedge”

Thursday, February 15, 2007
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Chet Edinger sees corn as an all or nothing, go-for-broke crop. “It has the most potential to make you a bunch of money, and it can lose you a bunch too.” With less risk due to dry weather, he views sunflower as more of a stable crop.

Using a baseball analogy, he likens sunflower to more of a solid base hit, and corn as more of a home run crop (although members of the 3,000 lb sunflower club would say ‘flowers can hit the long ball too). The trouble with corn is those swing-and-miss years when dry conditions lower the earned run average.

“There’s guys west and south of me who haven’t had a good corn crop for five years, and when that happens, your crop insurance coverage takes a hit. So how do you hedge it in dry years so you don’t lose a ton of money on corn? Well, you plant sunflowers,” says Edinger. “It’s a good dry weather hedge.”

Edinger farms with brother Charlie near Mitchell, S.D. They’re not a stranger to growing sunflower: their dad Wayne, now retired, started growing ‘flowers in 1982. Highway 281 near Mitchell seems to be a dividing line for growing conditions, with better soil and moisture east of there. The Edinger Brothers Partnership grows mostly corn and soybeans east of Hwy 281, and on their land west of Hwy 281, their rotation is usually two years of grasses followed by a broadleaf crop then back to a grass; typically wheat, corn, soybeans or sunflower, then back to wheat.

The Edingers usually double crop winter wheat after sunflower. “We pull the sunflowers off anywhere between September 15 and October 1, and we’re usually a day behind the combine with the air seeder,” says Edinger. “It’s a good rotation for us to recharge the soil moisture profile. You go from a high moisture use crop to a lower moisture use crop.”

They’re no-till producers, so they seed wheat directly into the sunflower stubble. “The important thing is to just get it (the winter wheat) in the ground, then hope we catch a rain in the fall to get it going, and we usually do.” They grow mostly Westley as a winter wheat, placing about 80-100 lbs of DAP (18-46-0) with the seed, treated with Incentive RTA.

The Edingers like the ability of sunflower to root down and break up hard pan spots, and tap into subsoil moisture. “If you have pot holes that tend to have a hard time draining, they drain better on sunflower stalks,” says Chet.

They plant sunflower anywhere between May 5 and June 10, switching to an earlier season hybrid if planting later within that range. “That’s the nice thing with sunflower, you have a good window for planting. It’s not like corn, where you basically have about two weeks for planting, four weeks tops.”

The Edingers grow sunflower entirely for the bird food market, planting Mycogen 270 and 187. “The old Cargill varieties. Old genetics, but they work well for us as bird food,” says Chet. “A nice, plump kernel that the bird food guys like.” The Edingers have already contracted some new crop for bird food at $14.50. “Highest new crop contract we’ve ever had for bird seed,” says Chet.

They soil test every field, and apply 4-4.5 gallons of 10-34-0 in furrow, planting sunflower in 20” row spacings with a seed drop of about 18,000 plants/ac. Their weed control program varies with the field. “Just like one herbicide might not work for all your corn acres, it might not work for all your sunflower acres either,” says Chet. “You have to survey your fields, know the strengths and weaknesses of the herbicides of all the herbicides available to you, and plan accordingly.”

While price and product availability can be an issue, the Edingers do like Spartan as a pre-emerge, working well for weed control in tandem with an early glyphosate/2,4-D burndown before planting. They use Prowl H20 as a pre-emerge as well, although like Spartan, both products need time and moisture for activation. They’ll apply Poast or Select Max if needed for grassy weed control.

Dealing with pests

A pest the Edingers can have early in the season isn’t what you might expect – pheasants, particularly on fields near CRP ground. “They want that seed, it doesn’t matter if it’s treated or not, they’ll still dig it up and eat it,” says Chet.

They have a 17-acre patch of ground near CRP that’s been a perennial problem, no matter what’s been seeded, corn or sunflower. Last year they tried something that seemed to make a difference. After planting the small field to corn, they loaded about 50 bushels of bin-run corn into a pickup, and scooped it out on top of the ground while driving down the edge of the field next to the CRP ground.

“We made it easier for them to feed, and it seemed to work. So if we plant sunflower next to CRP, we’re going to try the same thing, string some corn along the edge of the crop.” Chet says that once the crop is up, a few inches tall, the pheasants leave it alone.

Once sunflower has headed, late bud – early bloom, the Edingers scout for banded sunflower moth activity, usually in the evening. “They can be hard to see during the day, so we check at night, for seed weevil activity as well.” They scout every 3-5 days, and continue to after ray petals drop, and treat accordingly.

“We’ve had stem weevil activity in the fall, but we’ve never sprayed for them. They’re usually only an issue if stems become weak, so if we recognize that there’s stem weevils and that the stems could get weak, we might consider harvesting the sunflowers earlier, and not let them stand as long,” says Chet. They’ve never had the need to apply a desiccant for faster harvest dry-down, but like hearing that glyphosate may soon be approved for pre-harvest weed control in sunflower – another tool for the toolbox to use if needed.

Blackbirds are probably their biggest pest in sunflower. Late in the summer when protecting seed in the sunflower head is critical (“start scouting when seeds are filled, they like the soft outer shells,” says Chet) they hire teenagers to ride around on four wheelers near their sunflower fields to shoot at blackbirds, in the morning before the heat of the day comes on, and again in the evening.

“These are 16-year olds who love to hunt. Ride around on four wheelers, shoot birds and get paid for it? They think that’s a pretty good job,” says Chet. “And for us, when we compare the wages we pay them versus what blackbirds can take, it’s a pretty good insurance policy.”

Propane cannons won’t solve the issue without physically shooting them – Chet says the distress call of wounded birds helps deter others. Since blackbirds become used to feeding in a certain location, preventing a feeding pattern from starting is key. “Mornings seem to be the most important time for deterrence. That’s when they’re coming out of their rookeries, looking to go into the fields and feed, so if you can break that pattern before it starts, they’ll go to different feed sources,” says Chet.

The Edingers participated in a lure plot project with USDA Wildlife Services last year. “I feel this program has potential as one more aspect of management to deter blackbirds, but location is the key,” says Chet. “You want to make it easier for the blackbirds to get to the lure plot than the commercial field.”

“Combine tank should be black”

The Edingers use pan heads attached to a MacDon flex-draper for harvesting sunflower. “A lot of guys use all-crop heads, and that’s fine. There are pros and cons with both, and it’s a matter of personal preference. We like pans, they’re less expensive then an all-crop header and make sense if you already have a flex-draper for soybeans. You can combine any direction and get a clean sample.”

Chet advises “going by the book” for suggested combine settings, then tweaking as need be according to the harvest conditions. “Every combine has a book in the cab that tells you what you should have your concave, sieves, and rotor speed set at. Set it to what the book says is best for sunflower, and then tweak it if you need to. You don’t want to roll into a field and throw too much out the back, or set so it’s not cleaning it up good enough.”

The combine tank should appear black, not brown. “If you have a lot of foreign material in your tank, it’ll look more brown than black. What you’re seeing is head pulp – that’s dockage. You don’t want dock over 6% – you don’t get paid for hauling junk.”

When beginning harvest, he advises combining a swath, then checking the tank. “If it’s black, you’re in pretty good shape. If not, make adjustments. Count the seeds out the back. Estimate seeds per square foot, then calculate that into seeds per acre and then pounds per acre. If you’re throwing 25-30 lbs/ac out the back, that’s acceptable.”

Last year the Edingers’ sunflower crop ranged between 1,700 – 2,500 lbs. “We were disappointed, our ‘flowers were already past seed fill when the August rains started hitting. But that’s the luck of the draw, that’s farming. You hope you have rain all three months of the summer, but chances are one of those months you won’t. That’s why you plant the different crops,” says Chet.

He points out that if you figure an 1,800 lb average sunflower crop with a total expense of $208/ac selling at a price of $14.50, that’s $261/ac, a net profit of $53/ac. Get that in a dry year, and that’s a solid base hit. – Tracy Sayler

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