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Giving ’Flowers a Tryout in Indiana

Friday, December 1, 2017
filed under: Minimum Till/No-Till

Photo: Wade Chalfant
      Wade and Elliot Chalfant aren’t afraid to try new things on their farm in eastern Indiana. The current rotation on the brothers’ 1,300-acre farm includes corn, soybeans and winter wheat. They also do drain tile installation; and with Indiana’s recent heavy rainfall patterns, Wade says tiling is sometimes the difference between getting a crop planted and not getting anything in the ground. But the Chalfant brothers are looking for even more ways to diversify their operation, including livestock, fish, cover crops — and sunflower.
       “Aquaculture, raising different types of fish in a controlled environment, is becoming big in Indiana,” Wade says. “We have been doing cover crops for seven or eight years. We really like what the cover crops do for our soil health. Our cover crops have helped us raise healthier crops, weather proof our soil, and have minimized the damage when we have severe droughts and massive floods, of which we’ve had both in recent years.”
       Those cover crops are what led them to sunflower.
       “We had sunflower in our cover crop mix at a pretty low seeding rate,” Wade explains. “I felt like they were doing nice things to the soil, and they were a good species to pollinate and attract bees. Plus, we saw a bump in our corn yield the following year. I attributed that to the tap root of the sunflower. My thinking was if we could ever have an opportunity to grow sunflower, we should try them — especially if they can help us grow better corn the following year.”
       So after a year of research, the Chalfant brothers planted their first sunflower crop in 2016.
       “We planted about 100 acres of higholeic sunflower in 2016,” Wade says. “We thought that was a good starting point. We were a little disappointed with our yields. We were hoping for 1,000-2,000 lbs as a double crop, but only got between 800-900 lbs. We felt like we came up a little short there, but our weather pattern is pretty variable, and in 2016 we got 14 inches of rain in August. That really hurt our sunflower crop.”
       More rain in 2017 kept the Chalfants from planting any sunflower.
       “We wanted to double crop them after our winter wheat, but we had 40 inches of rain from May to July; our average rainfall for the entire year is 38 inches. We had the seed in the planter, but it was early August before we could get into the field. That would have been pushing it; we would have had to have great weather in order for the sunflower to do well, so we just decided to not plant this year.” 
       But they’re not giving up hope on planting sunflower again.
       “If we had normal weather we think sunflower could be a good fit.”
       There is a push to get more sunflower acres in east central Indiana where the Chalfants farm.
       “We are in Randolph County, which is right next to the Ohio state line, about 70 miles east of Indianapolis,” Wade notes. “At the beginning of this year there was talk of trying to get 5,000 acres of sunflower planted between Indiana, Michigan and parts of Ohio. It didn’t happen because of our wet weather, but it did generate some interest.”
       Chalfant says there are some challenges to growing sunflower in Indiana. Situated in the eastern Corn Belt, corn and soybeans are the main crops in the area. But he says wheat acres are down, and many producers are looking for new options to grow on soil previously dedicated to wheat.
       “We have heavy clay soil, and some of that ground isn’t as productive as the ground where soybeans and corn are grown. But sunflower can handle the tougher ground.”
       And Chalfant likes what he’s seen in the soil health where he’s planted sunflower, whether alone or as part of a cover crop. “We saw a nice yield bump in our corn after we’d had sunflower as part of our cover crop mix there the previous year.”
       Chalfant’s cover crop mix varies from year to year, but he tries to include three or four grasses, two or three legumes, and buckwheat to help with pollination.
       “We’ve played around with our cover crop mix, using anywhere from four to 12 different species,” he relates.  “I try to keep costs in mind when working on those cover crop mixes. Some of the crops in the mixes can get pretty expensive, and there are other things that give us value. I often include oats because they establish well and allow other species to do the same. Radishes work well, but we’ve also been using turnips and sunflower instead. The sunflower has a nice taproot and does as good of a job as radishes [in] scavenging. Turnips scavenge the nutrients on top, store them and release them to help the other species.”
       Chalfant says cover crops have changed the way he and his brother farm; and while not a magic ticket, he tells other producers if they’re willing to make some changes to how they farm, there are some rewards. The key, he says, is having a progressive mindset. For him and Elliott, that means adding sunflower to their crop rotation.
       “People probably think we’re crazy,” he laughs. “But there are some growers around us who tried sunflower for the first time this year. We’re going to have to wait and see how their yields end up. They planted really late, and I’m not sure they’ll get the harvested before winter. We are farther south than producers in the Dakotas where so many sunflowers are grown, but we do get winter weather. I hope those who tried the crop this year don’t get discouraged.”
       As for the Chalfants, they’re already planning their 2018 crops, and sunflower is in the plans.  “We used to be 50% corn, 40-45% soybeans, and then 5-10% winter wheat. We’ve been doing more winter wheat recently with the idea of double cropping sunflower after the wheat harvest in July,” Wade explains.
       They’re also looking at interseeding some cover crops with the sunflower. Wade is considering turnips, oats and buckwheat while the sunflower is growing, and then another cover crop after the sunflower harvest. He thinks that would be a win-win situation.
       “We put buckwheat in with early soybeans this year, and we feel they were our best beans. The buckwheat flowers early and attracts pollinators; so when the soybeans start to flower, the pollinators are already there and pollinate the soybeans. I think the same could happen with sunflower,” Wade says. “I really think with soil health and even the situation with pollinators, especially bees, sunflower are great for that. That’s got us excited about the crop, too. We think bees need to be brought back onto the farm. My brother has some hives and is trying to bring them back. We hope by having other pollinators in our cover crop species, we can attract the bees. It’s good for crops and also good for bees.”
       As the fourth generation on their family farm, Wade and Elliot are not only committed to advancing their farming practices, but they’re also convinced there are lessons to be learned from the way things were done generations ago.
       “I think there are some opportunities with farming that we have overlooked. I call it ‘old school farming,’ the way my grandfather and his father used to do things,”?Wade observes.  “Our grandfather had bees on the farm 60 years ago, and he was doing the same things we are trying to do now. They had more rotations and more crops back then, as well as livestock. Those are things we are trying to incorporate into our operation again.
       “Our dad has been a good sounding board for us. We’ve taking the approach of trying new things in small areas, like our 100 acres of sunflower. We want to look closely at new things and figure out how to make them work best in our area.
       “It’s an exciting time to be a farmer,” this eastern Indiana producer concludes.   “There are challenges, and we’ve had bumps along the way.  But if we never change and never try new things, we won’t make any progress. We want to be progressive and innovative farmers. We think sunflower can help us be both. I’m hoping we can figure out how to make it work on our farm.
       “We are excited for the opportunities we see with sunflower, and we also recognize the challenges. We’ll figure it out, though.  It just might take some time.”
— Jody Kerzman                                         
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