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Raising 'Flowers Near Heart Mountain

Sunday, December 1, 2013
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Living in a high desert climate where annual precipitation averages about six inches is not a recipe for successful crop production. Add irrigation to the equation, however, and it’s a totally different story.

That combination — a dry climate and sufficient irrigation — has allowed Lyle Evelo to establish an impressive track record with confection sunflower over the past decade. Evelo, who farms at Ralston (near Powell) in north central Wyoming, is the “dean” of sunflower producers in this corner of the state, having grown confections under contract with Dahlgren and now SunOpta since the early 2000s.

The vicinity has proven to be an excellent pocket for sunflower production, with its climate helping minimize disease presence while simultaneously contributing to overall seed quality. Insects have not been an issue to date, either, adding even more to the area’s appeal.

But it’s the irrigation, of course, that allows any crop in the area —sunflower included — to flourish. Evelo consistently averages around 2,500 lbs/ac, at times nudging up around the 3,000-lb level. The majority of his ’flowers as of 2013 are under center pivots, but he also has significant furrow-irrigated acreage. “On my sandier ground, if I’m furrow irrigating, I’m typically on an eight- or nine-day watering schedule all summer,” Evelo notes. “On the heavier soils, it’s about 18 to 21 days between each irrigation. And, I don’t need to start irrigating as soon in the season.”

Evelo’s sunflower is planted in 22-inch rows, similarly to sugarbeets — another primary crop in his rotation, along with malting barley. “It’s more difficult to irrigate crops up in 30-inch rows with furrow irrigation compared to pivots,” he points out. “With a 22-inch row spacing, we’d normally water every other row; so we’d need to run the water longer to get it over to the seed.” While a 12-hour set is preferred for furrow irrigation, conditions sometimes dictate sets of up to 24 hours “because at that time of year, we can get some very warm winds — and on many of these lighter soils, all of a sudden it’s dry.”

With sunflower under center pivots, “I typically set the pivot to put on a half inch of water” per cycle, Evelo says. In high-temperature periods, “they probably run three-fourths of the time.”

Evelo likes sunflower to follow sugarbeets in the rotation. Fall-applied Sonalan® HFP is at the core of his preferred weed control program. “I like to put on as much of the fertilizer and herbicide in the fall as I can,” he explains. But on lighter ground, “I don’t want to work it much in the fall, because if I do and we get some of those winter winds, pretty soon my soil is blowing to someone else’s place.”

That consideration — and savings in tillage labor and fuel — is why for 2013 Evelo strip tilled 100% of his sunflower and sugarbeet ground. While he had dabbled with strip till in the past (relying on a custom operator), for this year he purchased Strip Cat units from Twin Diamond Industries and mounted them on an old Deere toolbar. Plant stand in both crops was excellent, and by late summer Evelo was anticipating top yields for both sunflower and sugarbeet.

“One ‘problem’ that we’re trying to get better at is test weight,” Evelo relates regarding his confection sunflower regimen. “We started out at a normal (for confections) 16,000 population. Now we’re up in the 20,000-plus range, and that seems to be helping. And, it has not affected seed size; in fact, it has increased our yields.” Evelo knows that such a population is significantly higher than what’s typically recommended for fields in dryland areas. “But with the variety SunOpta has requested we plant, we’re able to increase the population, increase our yields — and maintain the seed size SunOpta is looking for.” The higher population also has contributed toward a more-uniform and timely plant drydown across fields, he adds.

“Another question we’re still working on is planting date: How soon can we plant?” Evelo continues. “I know in most areas they want to plant later to help avoid certain insects. Since that’s not an issue here, we want to try to plant earlier and see what difference that could make.” By “early planting,” he means the second week in May. Quite a bit of the area’s sunflower is planted during the third or fourth week of May; some in June. “For guys located in a lower elevation, that seems to have been working well,” Evelo says. But where he’s at (4,700-4,800 feet), the crop matures a little slower; so the earlier planting date makes sense. “There’s no reason to wait — other than being so busy with other things you just don’t get to it,” he affirms.

At the other end of the season, Evelo likes to begin harvesting when seed moisture is 14-15% to avoid shattering. Birds aren’t a big problem, but they do cause some late-fall damage, as do feeding deer. Bins equipped with natural air drying capability store the seeds until the crop can be delivered.

All in all, sunflower has proven to be a great fit for Lyle Evelo over the past decade. Between the yields and quality he and his neighbors have been able to achieve — and attractive contract prices, of course — the Heart Mountain area has become a welcome source for confection sunflower seed.

— Don Lilleboe
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