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Kansan's Favorite Crop? Sunflower!

Friday, November 1, 2013
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

When in full bloom, there are few sights more attractive than a robust sunflower field. But no sunflower grower — Aaron Horinek included — grows this crop just because it makes for a great midsummer photo. It’s about profitability.

Still, Horinek, who farms near Colby, Kan., with his father, Tony, enthuses, “I absolutely love growing sunflower. It’s my favorite crop.” Some of this affection traces back to his childhood and the crop’s appearance in the summertime and its smell during the fall harvest. But it’s also about having a very successful production track record in recent years — and realizing net revenues consistently superior to dryland corn.

Aaron came back to the family farm after graduating from Benedictine College in Atchison, Kan., in December 2009. Since his return, sunflower as a percentage of total crop acreage on the Horinek farm has increased. That contrasts with the overall situation in Thomas County, where sunflower acreage has trended downward in recent years as corn plantings have expanded.

What kinds of yields have fed the Horinek appetite for sunflower? “In 2011, a lot of our (dryland) ’flowers made 2,600 lbs,” Aaron says. “And one field averaged 3,000 lbs across the scale.” Oil percentage on the 3,000-lb field was 41%; but where the yields were in the ton range, oils ran 46%.

Last year (2012) was a different matter, as the best Horinek field yielded about 1,000 lbs/ac. “But that was on just eight to 10 inches of rainfall,” Aaron notes. “Our best dryland corn was 43 bushels” that year.

Like many across the High Plains, the Horinek cropland are no-till producers. Unlike the majority, however, their sunflower typically follows corn rather than wheat in the rotation. “Our ’flowers never go into wheat stubble; they’re so tough it almost seems like a ‘waste’ of the wheat stubble,” Aaron remarks. “Whereas our corn needs that wheat stubble (for heat protection and the extra soil moisture), the ’flowers don’t really need it. They’ll be better off with it; but we can still grow really good sunflower after corn,” Aaron states.

The Horineks prefer to plant sunflower early — and, at the other end of the season, to harvest ’flowers as early as possible. While he knows that a mid-May planting date likely means more spraying for insects (the head moth in particular), Aaron says it’s worth it. “A lot of the research I’ve seen shows we’ll have a better oil content” from earlier planting, he explains. “And, it’s nice — when we’re done with corn — to switch right over to sunflower and not park the planter.” Also, in most years “our rains stop after the first week of August,” he continues. “So we want that seed to fill before then.”

To his knowledge, the Horineks are the only area growers who desiccate their crop. “We don’t have a bird problem,” Aaron says. “It’s to get them off early. And, they harvest nicer. Plus, in years when we’ve desiccated, we’ve had no problems with combine fires.” Finally, “if we get them out in early September rather than early October, that’s four weeks we gain for drilling wheat.”

Despite sunflower’s reputation for mining deep moisture and nutrients, “we still run around 100 lbs of actual N on them — especially since all of our ’flowers are following one or two years of corn,” Aaron states. “In our experience, the people who say they wreck the ground are the ones who don’t fertilize. We feel that if you treat them right, they leave the soil and fertility manageable.”

That said, in an exceptionally dry year like 2013, even sunflower certainly struggles. Average yield on this year’s Horinek dryland ’flowers was around 700 lbs/ac, with a range of from 400 to 1,000 lbs.

What are the keys to optimizing dryland sunflower in Thomas County? In Aaron Horinek’s view, it centers on three things:

“First would be ‘clean.’ You have to start with a clean field, and you have to keep it clean.” (A Prowl/Spartan tank mix is at the core of the Horinek weed control regimen.)

“Secondly, getting a good plant stand — and by that, I don’t necessarily mean a certain number. We’ve made 2,000 lbs with a plant stand of 9,000. But rather, the more even the stand, the better the result.

“Another key to success,” this young northwestern Kansas grower concludes, “is mindset. Many people have said, ‘Oh, you don’t need to fertilize them or pay much attention to them. And then they complain the next year about how the sunflower yielded or the conditions for the next crop.

“We treat our sunflower tough. We put them in dry conditions. But we try to treat them right, too. We feed them, we spray for bugs, we give them the management they need and deserve. And they’ve paid us back.”

— Don Lilleboe

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