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Harvest an Ongoing Education

Monday, September 1, 2008
filed under: Harvest/Storage

Note: This is another installment of the “In My Experience” column. We invite farmers to submit their thoughts on an aspect of production in a written format to

By Richard Olson / Onida, S.D.

Prior to the late 1970s, if you saw sunflower in Sully County, you would simply dismiss it as a weed. Things certainly have changed since then, and Sully County now consistently ranks as the number one sunflower producing county in South Dakota. When taking family trips to North Dakota in the early ’70s, it was a strange sight to see sunflower planted as a crop. By the late ’70s, sunflower production was being recruited in central South Dakota, and we decided to give it a try. Since that time, sunflower has been a major staple in our rotation.

Our arid climate in August is the Achille’s heel of most fall crops, and sunflower’s ability to send roots down to subsoil moisture means a great crop in this area. Sunflower also is a scavenger of leached fertility from prior crops, which helps reduce input costs.

But as good as sunflower works in this area, it hasn’t been without its challenges. Even to this day, weed control technology lags far behind other crops. As much as we would like to move to a complete no-till operation, we aren’t comfortable with our options. Spartan, Prowl, Poast and Beyond certainly have made things easier; but environmental factors out of our control can limit the effectiveness of some of these chemicals. We are hoping to see a flexible and cost-effective post broadleaf control chemical come on the market soon.

The pale-striped flea beetle has decided it likes this area and is here to stay. Luckily, Cruiser-treated seed has helped that problem — but at a substantial cost increase. Seed weevils prior to blooming are always an issue, and usually meet economic threshold levels to justify an aerial pesticide application.

The harvesting of sunflower is an ongoing learning experience. Up until a few years ago, we ran John Deere conventional cylinder combines. Even though other companies used rotor technology, we didn’t switch until John Deere did. Capacity and cleaning have been greatly increased with the rotor versus the conventional cylinder; but in the right conditions any combine will do a good job.

Sunflower between 10 and 12% moisture combines faster and cleaner. Unfortunately, that is usually a small window, and you are dealing with either wetter or much drier seeds. Setting your combine according to your particular brand’s suggestion is a good place to start. Your tolerance to dockage and how long you plan on storing them will dictate your final settings.

We have been using John Deere all-crop heads because we believe they do the best job in lodged ’flowers and have little header loss. We recently purchased a larger custom-built head to accommodate larger combines, as John Deere no longer makes all-crop headers.

We have been lucky to avoid combine fires (knock on wood). I think that is because of a combination of several factors. First, we run a little slower to get our dockage down to 2 to 3% so the combine isn’t working as hard. Second, we keep the combines fairly clean to avoid trash buildup — especially around moving parts. Third, we drag two large chains to both knock over the sunflower stocks in front of the tires and dissipate static electricity. And fourth, we lubricate every chain daily with oil and aggressively grease bearings to make things work easier.

When sunflower seeds are on the wetter side, we put them in dryer bins and use natural air to dry them down. When they are drier, we run them through a Kwik Kleen cleaner to separate out the fines to facilitate better air flow in the bin. We check them again at Thanksgiving and early spring for moisture resurgence and weevils. If you store sunflower seeds through the summer, you had better be checking them quite frequently, as weevils and hot spots will show up.

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