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Lessons Learned: Sunflower’s Double-Crop Benefits

Friday, February 1, 2008
filed under: Planting Systems

Editor’s Note: Double-crop sunflower is not new in the High Plains, as evidenced by articles in The Sunflower dating back as far as the latter 1980s. But its potential benefits for many of the region’s growers continue to exceed its actual use. This month, we provide double-crop snapshots from four Kansas sunflower producers who have made the program work for them during the past several years.

Note: When considering double-crop sunflower, it is important to select a compatible wheat herbicide that will not interfere with sunflower growth and development. Wheat herbicides with long residuals can prevent rotation to double-crop ’flowers.

Tom Wright IV of Lakin, Kan., has been double-cropping sunflower for the last five years. The Kearney County farmer prefers to plant his sunflower by July 10, but has gone later. He uses a combination of Spartan® and Prowl® right after seeding for weed control and follows up with an irrigation pass to activate the herbicides and get the seeds in moist soil. He has been very pleased with his weed control.

Wright, who usually drops about 28,000 seeds per acre with his John Deere vacuum planter, says the addition of Cruiser® seed treatment has greatly improved his plant stand. He fertilizes for a 2,000-lb yield which requires about 100 lbs of N. He splits his applications, with about half going in at planting and the other half through the center pivot.

Wright’s ’flowers are on split pivots with corn, so the amount of water the sunflower portion receives is somewhat dependent on the corn’s needs and timing. “I want to him them with a good soaking at bud stage for sure. That’s the most important stage for water needs,” says Wright.

In 2007 the combination of weather and weeds eliminated six of eight circles that Wright planned for sunflower after wheat harvest. “We had the early frosted wheat, then lots of rain that further delayed wheat harvest,” he explains. “Then it got very dry. We had weeds in the wheat that needed to be controlled; but we couldn’t get them actively growing after harvest.”

The delay in planting didn’t really hurt yields on the sunflower, however. “The circle we planted on July 15 yielded a surprising 2,400 lbs, and the July 25 planting yielded 1,700 lbs,” Wright indicates. “That was much later than we wanted to plant, but you have to go with what Mother Nature provides.” Oil content on the first planting was in the low 40s, while that of the latter planting was a shade under 40%. Wright did spray for head moth on the first field, which was unusual for him. Planting this late usually avoids the head moth; but 2007 was a big head moth year, according to the Kearney County producer.

What are some of Wright’s recommendations when it comes to growing double-crop sunflower? Early planting, good weed control and a good stand are at the top of the list. “We had an excellent stand on the highest-yielding circle — probably the best I have ever had. The soil was mellow and the ’flowers popped up evenly,” he reports.

Wright’s long-term yield average is close to 1,800 lbs per acre. He tries to harvest at about 10% seed moisture and stores his seeds on-farm. He delivers to the ADM crushing plant at Goodland and generally gets a backhaul of either meal or corn. He also takes delivery at his storage facility from area farmers who don’t have storage.

Asked what he likes about sunflower, Tom Wright replies, “The price. At these levels, with an Act of God, I don’t have a lot of risk.”

Vernon Hurt farms further to the east, near Sawyer in Pratt County, Kan. He has been double-cropping sunflower after winter wheat for the past three years, all of it dryland — except for 2007, when he also planted sunflower on several circles.

Hurt plants no-till in early July, using a glyphosate burndown and Spartan for weed control prior to emergence. “In our part of Kansas, we usually have enough moisture for emergence — and that’s critical for sunflower,” Hurt observes. “Good seed-to-soil contact is important.”

Insects have not been an issue when planting in July. However, Hurt did spray for the sunflower head moth in 2006 and again in 2007. “We had lots of head moth this past year; and despite one application of an insecticide, we still had some damage,” he reports.

Hurt’s latest-planted 2007 field — July 19 — still had plenty of time to mature. Though its test weight and oils were good, the head moth may have kept a lid on his yields, which varied from 900 to 1,700 lbs. He planted his irrigated double-crop sunflower right into standing wheat that had been zeroed out. “We had a great sunflower stand in that field and no problem getting it planted. We used a John Deere double-disk planter with a coulter out front and had good soil-to-seed contact.”

Hurt shoots for 10% seed moisture at harvest. “Harvesting too dry is a problem for potential combine fires.” For the last two years, Hurt has used his 12-row Deere corn head fitted with hydraulic deck plates to harvest his ’flowers. “Plus, you have to have the knife rollers to cut the stems. It works great!” he says. “I started with an all-crop header, but this works much better. I cut my harvest losses dramatically.”

If soil moisture is adequate, Hurt drills wheat into the sunflower stubble immediately after harvest.

Hurt contracted some of his ’07 ’flowers to the Goodland crush plant and sold the overage to a birdfood processor. He has bought his planting seed for 2008, but cautions that double cropping in his area is very seasonal. “So far we have excellent moisture, so it looks good for double cropping this coming season,” he reports.

In northeastern Kansas’ Nemaha County, Chris Menold of Sabetha has been double cropping dryland sunflower for one basic reason: it pays. “Soybeans are about breakeven as a double crop, while sunflower is a money maker,” says Menold.

He has never lost a sunflower crop to a freeze, despite his more northerly location. He plants in late June or early July and uses Roundup® right before the planter as his weed control. About half the time, he applies a grass herbicide to take out volunteer wheat after sunflower emergence. Menold has never had a major broadleaf weed problem. “A good stand of sunflower will shade out emerging broadleaf weeds,” he confirms. Dropping 23,000 seeds per acre, he shoots for a final plant stand of 20,000. He also uses Cruiser seed treatment, which has helped his stand.

The 2007 season was Menold’s best double-crop year so far, averaging 1,700 to 1,800 lbs. But it didn’t start that way. He had very dry conditions at planting, and emergence was very spotty. He planted deep to reach moisture but still ended up with a 60% stand. “The early emerged plants got to be about six inches tall and just stayed that way. It looked like a disaster until the rains came in late July — and those plants really took off. The other seeds germinated then as well, and we ended up with a great crop,” Menold says.

Harvesting fields with split maturities was a bit of a challenge. The plants were all mature despite the late emergence, but seed moistures varied from 8% on the early emerged sunflower to 15% on the late-emerged plants. “Actually, it worked out quite well by mixing the dry and wet seeds. We did do some air drying,” he notes.

Like many others in the High Plains, Menold sprayed for head moth this season. “It is likely something we will have to do each year,” he says. “We’ll certainly do the scouting and do the control if the numbers are present. The losses can be significant.”

Menold uses an all-crop head on which he’s done some retrofitting to eliminate harvest losses. He prefers having at least half of the crop sold well before harvest, either storing or selling the remainder at harvest. Over the years, yields have ranged from 1,200 to 2,100 lbs, depending on moisture. For this northeastern Kansas producer, double-crop sunflower is definitely a good fit.

In north central Kansas, Russell Hendrich of Portis planted sunflower after his wheat crop because the price dictated it as an opportunity. “I work with a marketing group, and sunflower kept popping up as a profitable alternative. I didn’t have many open acres, so double crop looked to be good option,” said Hendrich.

The Osborn County producer had grown sunflower in the 1970s, so it wasn’t totally new. But the 2007 season did not proceed exactly according to plan. “Our wheat got frosted, and then it got very wet. We planted sunflower from June 20 to July 23 — well beyond what we had planned,” Hendrich says. “The sprayer and planter were in the same field as the combine; but rain during that period delayed all the operations.”

Hendrich, a stickler for weed control, used a combination of glyphosate, Spartan and Prowl combined with the adjuvant ASPA 80, and was very satisfied with his weed control. He did a minimal bit of “touch up” with a grass herbicide. He initially dropped 16,300 seeds per acre, aiming for a 15,000 plant stand. “I increased it to 17,500 after I began to worry about slow emergence in the first-planted fields,” Hendrich notes. “However, I found that the 15,000 final plant stand is very workable and gave me the best yields.”

Using no starter fertilizer, he foliar applied three gallons of Kugler XRN (28-0-0) at the five- to six-leaf stage. He split applications on a number of fields, with the latter application being two gallons of XRN at the bud stage. “I was concerned about putting dry fertilizer down and losing it, [given] the erratic season we were having. I was pleased with the results of the foliar, which is a slow-release product. We will definitely do it again next year.”

The biggest challenge in 2007 was the head moth. “I scouted every third day, and the moths were definitely present,” Hendrich indicates. “We sprayed most fields two times and a few fields three times, and we had great control. The insect has to be controlled — and with prices at the 20-cent level, I can easily justify the control. I used a lot of Lorsban®, and my aerial applicator was happy. Those who didn’t get the moth controlled suffered considerable yield loss.”

Hendrich started harvesting October 16 and finished the day before Thanksgiving. He began combining sunflower at 30% seed moisture in an effort to get wheat planted back into the sunflower ground. “We had to reduce our land speed on the combine to get a good thresh at that high moisture level because the seeds kept going over the sieve. But as the seeds dried that problem was resolved.” Hendrich has on-farm storage with high-capacity pressure cure aeration, so he was able to dry the wet seeds using natural air.

Hendrich ended up very satisfied with his entry into double-crop sunflower. “My breakeven was 960 lbs, and I was shooting for an average of 1,200 lbs to make a reasonable profit. I averaged 1,700 lbs over 4,030 acres — so it was a ‘home run,’ ” he states. Yields varied from 1,100 to 2,405 lbs, with oil contents from 38 to 49%. His latest planting of July 23 yielded a very respectable 1,600 lbs per acre. “We farm over a 38-mile radius, and rainfall and soil types change significantly. I no-till everything, and I realized I had up to three to eight years of deep moisture and fertility at levels my wheat couldn’t touch,” Hendrich points out.

“I decided to take that to the bank and let the deep-rooted sunflower do its job.” — Larry Kleingartner

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