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The Recipe for High Oils

Tuesday, February 1, 2011
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

There has always been the question of seed yield versus oil yield when selecting a hybrid. No question we all love to get oil premiums, because most of us don’t automatically count on it. It’s a bonus. And when prices are in the $20 range, a 2% price premium for each point of oil over 40% can mean “real” money.

Oil content often determines whether the crop gets marketed to the oil or bird food market. Having a 45% oil content results in a 10% price premium. That is a $2.00/cwt premium when sunflower is at $20. But some producers are shooting for that magic high oil content level of 50%. Going for high oil content does require some strategy. Here, two producers in two very different growing environments who have achieved one similar outcome — consistently high oil content — discuss their programs.

Eastern North Dakota farmer Theodore Ostenson has been growing sunflower for over 30 years, so you’d think he would have seen it all by now. But he’ll be the first to admit seeing oil content at 51% in last year’s crop did manage to surprise him.

Tony Horinek, who farms near Colby in northwest Kansas, achieved an average oil of 44% on his 1,500 sunflower acres in 2010. He had some at 46% and overall had some of his best yields to date.

Ostenson and Horinek have had good success attaining above-average oil percentages for a multitude of reasons, including seed selection, fertilizer tactics, crop rotation strategy and planting date decisions.

The Ted and Todd Ostenson farm near Sharon (east central North Dakota) had a range of 2,100-lb ’flowers with 51% oil to 1,800 lbs with 49% oil in their 2010 season. Chalk it up to instinct, strategy or just plain good luck. The premium in their check from the elevator would cause any grower to sit up and take notice.

So what is the Ostensons’ secret?

First, it’s about choosing the right high-oil-yielding hybrid. That means visiting with seed companies and looking at several years of field test results. The Ostensons have also switched seed sizes. They were planting #4 seed, but a few years ago switched to #2 and have noticed a higher quality plant with quicker emergence that progresses faster through its growth stages.

Horinek agrees that it all starts with choosing the right hybrid. “The hybrids available have improved so much over the past few years,” he says. “We base our choice on experience, and we have determined our favorites. We accomplish this by experimenting on test plots.”

Both the Ostensons and Horinek favor an early planting date for high oil. The Ostensons like to get their ’flowers in the ground the beginning of May if possible for early emergence. Horinek says he likes to plant ’flowers around June 1-5.

The next factors are fertilizer strategy and crop rotation. Todd Ostenson says their plan goes by instinct based on a lot of trial and error over the years. Not only does the right strategy help in achieving yield goals; but having the right amount of nitrogen available to the sunflower plant benefits oil development. “We start with anhydrous right away as we prepare the ground. It’s not a big dose, but just enough to give the soil a boost,” he says. “Then at planting we put on a dry fertilizer of about 65 to 70 lbs of N two inches over and two inches down.”

The Ostensons rotate conventional till with minimum-till methods. The deep turnover of the soil every other year has alleviated weed pressure and breaks up the compacted soil, helping the plant emerge and allowing the root system to go deeper to utilize the residual N, establish a good plant stand and stronger stalk. “We like three or four years between our ’flowers,” Todd notes. “We used to get good results planting them after our barley crop. But now we like the wheat, soybean, wheat again and then the sunflower rotation. Not enough growers pay attention to the rotation aspect.”

Horinek would also consider fertilizer as next on the list as a contributing factor for high oil. He has increased the fertilizer package over the past couple of years, and it’s really paid off. “We top-dress with 100 lbs of nitrogen in the late fall or winter and add 30 lbs of phosphorus at planting.”

Horinek adds that his farm has been 100% no-till for a number of years. “So with that and no summer fallow, we’re not afraid of too much nitrogen because there’s little chance of leftover nutrients with an intense crop rotation that we follow here in Kansas.” They have limited rainfall and rotate sunflower after corn. They also employ a soil sampling company to conduct grid sampling to produce recommendations for variable-rate application for fertilizer.

Moisture at just the right time is also a factor. Both the Ostensons and Horinek say the best crops come when they have moisture early on and then additional rainfall later in the maturing stages when heads are filling. The timing of the water is the key. Water, whether it’s a well-timed rain or irrigation, at about the R-6 growth stage seems to have the greatest impact on oil content.

There is also an issue of geography. Traditionally, the Northern Plains produces higher oil content. The National Sunflower Association has gathered oil content data for many years, and the more-northern areas of North Dakota and Minnesota tend to produce higher oil contents compared to South Dakota and areas further south.

High oils are likely a result of key factors coming together at the right time. It all starts with hybrid selection and adding into the mix the right planting date, fertilizer tactics and crop rotation. It comes down to applying best practices in all those areas to maximize oil— plus a lot of luck from Mother Nature. — Sonia Mullally

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