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No Room for Mediocrity

Wednesday, February 1, 2012
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Higher is better when it comes to yield. That’s no secret. Higher yields mean more money in the bank at the end of the year.

Just about every grower has hit a high-yield home run over the years. But what does it take to “hit one out of the park” every year?

Achieving a ton or better-yielding sunflower is dependent on a number of factors. It starts with the right seed and then a little cooperation from Mother Nature to get it planted at the optimal time. Other important elements are proper fertilization, as well as good weed, insect and disease control. Some things are controllable; some are not. Here’s a profile of four growers who say consistency is key.

Tom Bargen

Nora, Neb.

This Nuckolls County farmer’s operation is located just a few miles from the Kansas border in southeastern Nebraska. Bargen, who has been growing sunflower for more than 20 years, is a self-described renegade. Other than his own acres, there are very few, if any, sunflower fields in the area. But he’s a loyal fan of the crop and keeps it in his rotation for several reasons — with the main one being its consistent performance.

“It works for us,” Bargen says, “Years ago, we got into sunflower because of a specific insect problem in our milo. It’s turned out to be a perfect fit for a broadleaf in our rotation.” That rotation typically consists of two wheat crops, milo, sunflower and then back to wheat. Bargen’s full-season sunflower yields this past year ran 2,066-2,145 lbs/ac, with the shining star being his double-crop sunflower at 2,400 lbs.

Bargen plants early, mainly because of his rotation, which includes planting winter wheat for seed production after sunflower. “We like to get our sunflower in and up out of the ground and then get back into winter wheat,” he explains. “We’ve tried early and late over the years, trying to avoid the Dectes (long-horned beetle) problem we have.”

It starts with hybrids with good oil content potential. His weed control package includes a preplant application of Spartan and a subsequent shot of Beyond on his Clearfield sunflower.

All are important components, but Tom Bargen thinks the real “secret to success” with sunflower lies in the fertility strategy. His ’flower fertility program depends on soil test results, with the goal of 100 to 120 lbs of actual nitrogen per acre. He injects the liquid N along with sulfur prior to planting.

Harvesting at higher moisture is not an issue, given Bargen’s air drying setup. They start taking the ’flowers off at the end of August or first part of September. “We try to get them off a little wetter to save quality and have less trash in the bin,” Bargen says. “In my area, it’s warm enough in the fall that seed dries down in hurry. It’s not unheard of to have 20% moisture one day, down to 15 the next, and then down to seven that same afternoon.”

“We plant all non-GMO crops and have been entirely no-till since 1988,” Bargen notes. “We have to think two years ahead. We plan ahead and don’t deviate. That’s been our key to consistent and rising yields over the years.” Maximizing clean, productive ground is the goal for Bargen and his operation.

Todd Yackley

Onida, S.D.

This central South Dakota farmer is not acquainted with Nebraskan Tom Bargen, but they seem to be on the same page when it comes to sunflower: the fertility plan is the key element to achieving consistently high yields. The Yackleys planted 6,500 sunflower acres this past year, with final yields ranging from 2,200 to 2,750 lbs/ac, along with good oil and test weight.

They depend on a soil test in late fall or early spring. The Yackleys are just starting to get into variable rates and zone management. “We shoot for a nitrogen rate of 100 to 130 actual, based on the soil test,” Todd says. “We also throw in a little starter fertilizer at planting.”

Consistently high yields may sound like an impossible dream for some due to highly variable environmental factors year after year, but Yackley says you start with good seed, have your planter in top-notch condition and pay attention to detail.

Yackley thinks they are just starting to see the true benefits of being in a no-till system for more than 15 years. They start the season with a full rate of Spartan at pre-plant and then add Prowls H2O behind the planter. They’ve had very minimal weed pressure, with this year being the best in years. They’ve had some issues with stem weevil in the past, but Yackley says if they go after the grasses later in the season they will add an insecticide, given the value of the ’flowers.

The Yackley sunflower operation has been virtually disease-free in recent years, and Todd credits rotation for that. They follow a spring wheat/winter wheat/ corn and then sunflower or soybean sequence. They also have some ground that goes corn/corn and then sunflower. The least disease issues, he says, are in the field where they stack corn on corn and then follow with sunflower. That ground has also produced the best sunflower crops in recent years.

That rotational benefit is what Yackley says keeps them growing sunflower every year — that and the excellent return on investment. They plan on increasing their acres in the 2012 growing season.

Darrel Sehn

Linton, N.D.

This Emmons County farmer says he got into sunflower almost 15 year ago for two main reasons: to make money and the fact that the crop does well on dry soil. The traditionally dry region of south central North Dakota has seen its share of drought prior to the recent wet cycle. “There were years in there that we couldn’t combine the wheat because there was nothing there; yet we had 1,700-lb sunflower,” Sehn explains.

He’s stuck with ’flowers all these years because it continues to be a top money maker. And achieving yields above 2,000 lbs/ac every season is not just a goal; it’s an absolute must. “We get disgusted with ’flowers under a ton,” Sehn says. This past season, his 750 acres of high-oleic sunflower came it at around 2,250 lbs/ac.

His rotation is typically spring wheat, winter wheat, corn and sunflower. One quarter of land that has had some “soggy” soil the last few years has a tighter rotation of almost exclusively corn and sunflower.

Sehn likes to plant around May 20. Over the years, he’s tried earlier (as early as May 10), but has backed off and had better luck avoiding the insect issues by planting just slightly later. He credits his no-till practices for the clean ground they have, but yet he never skips the Spartan application prior to planting his sunflower.

Sehn has had some issues with stem weevil in the past, but has found that by dropping the plant population just slightly to 20,000 at planting and ending up with about 18,000 facilitates larger stalks that stand up to the insect damage, should it show up. Because of the dryer conditions over the years, he’s had very little occurrence of disease in his ’flowers.

Sehn puts his dry fertilizer down in a 2x2 band with the planter, with the goal of total 200 pounds of urea and phosphorus — a practice that he affirms is much more effective than simply broadcasting the fertilizer.

Sehn also is adamant about planting depth. “I’m a firm believer in planting a little shallower,” he explains. “I’m very watchful to get our ’flowers planted at a depth of one to one and a half inches. It’s a delicate thing sometimes, because I think some guys plant them too deep and the sunflower struggles with emergence; but at the same time, we have to be mindful that they aren’t too shallow.”

This North Dakotan is sticking with sunflower because of the profitability — and the consistency it gives him compared to other crops in his traditionally dry area. “We are far enough west in North Dakota to where soybeans are sketchy year after year. Sunflower goes after that moisture when we need it,” Sehn explains. “We’ve had very few crops under 1,500 lbs, and in all these years only one 30-acre field that we had to abandon and didn’t harvest. I don’t think you can say that year in and year out about a lot of other crops.”

Dean Gerving

Mandan, N.D.

This central North Dakota farmer planted 7,000 acres of sunflower in 2011 near the Missouri River in partnership with his brother, Glen. Their crop of hullers was the only thing that made them money this past season, which has prompted them to plan on planting even more in 2012. They shoot for a ton every year and have achieved their goal consistently.

The Gervings like to plant earlier rather than later, aiming for around May 25 with the goal of being done by no later than June 10. This past year, due to wetter-than-usual conditions, they planted a few acres on June 17 and did “OK.” They rotate wheat and sunflower — sometimes growing two years of wheat and then into sunflower and back to wheat. They turned to sunflower years ago to break up the sawfly problem in wheat.

One of the Gerving brothers’ main objectives is keeping their fields clean. They plant Clearfield hybrids. “Following wheat, the sunflower ground will often get two burndowns — one after the wheat comes off and then again with Spartan at preplant. We also go with a shot of Beyond mid-season,” Dean explains.

Their fertilizer plan is a one-pass strategy of 100 lbs of N with the planter. They also throw in a blend of micronutrients of sulfur and phosphates. The Gerving operation also believes in using whatever is available to ensure a good crop.

They spray for seed weevil and use a fungicide consistently on every acre for rust and downy mildew issues (that can be severe some years).

“We treat sunflower as any other primary crop; not a secondary, like so many other guys tend to do,” Gerving notes. “We look at the money we stuck into our wheat last year with little return. We don’t skimp on our sunflower, and it’s a money maker for us every year.” Because of this, the Gerving brothers plan to increase their acres this coming year.

It’s safe to say that most growers have the same motivation: economics. But everyone’s operation is just a little different. The common thread running through these four growers’ stories is one of making their sunflower a priority. It’s a philosophy that can result in a big payoff.

— Sonia Mullally
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