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Double-Crop Success in the High Plains

Monday, February 1, 2010
filed under: Planting Systems

Interest in double-cropped sunflower has been expanding around the High Plains in recent years. While most of the region’s sunflower acreage still falls into the full-season category, more pockets of double-crop production have popped up as farmers look to optimize both the use of their land and their farm’s net income.

Curtis Raines, longtime farm manager for Hitch Farms of Guymon, is an Oklahoma Panhandle producer who’s been sold on the value of double-cropped sunflower for several years. He plants both dryland and irrigated double-crop ’flowers, shooting for yield goals of 2,500 lbs/ac or higher on the irrigated ground.

Historically, Hitch Farms has been a predominantly corn and wheat operation, along with running a large feedyard. Raines first looked seriously at sunflower after his crop consultant encouraged him to give it a shot. Now it’s a standard part of the rotation — allowing for the harvest of three crops in two years across two-thirds of the farm.

Ten or more circles of Hitch Farms irrigated corn are harvested as silage, which allows for early planting of the wheat on those fields. Following the next year’s wheat harvest, the sunflower is no-tilled into the wheat stubble. Because corn demands the bulk of the farm’s limited irrigation water, the ‘flowers aren’t irrigated until the corn’s needs have been met.

Raines typically plants the second-crop ’flowers between July 15-21. Seed drop on the irrigated fields is in the neighborhood of 23,-24,000 seeds per acre; on dryland, it’s closer to 18,000. July is typically very dry in the Oklahoma Panhandle, and Raines plants deep to moisture — up to 2.5 inches, if necessary.

Avoiding insects goes hand in hand with the mid-July planting date. Raines says he hasn’t had to spray for sunflower (head) moth or any other insects for at least five years due to his late planting date. Fertilizer inputs typically consist of about 120 lbs/ac of nitrogen along with some supplemental sulfur.

“I never go to harvest without a contract,” Raines adds. “I will plant without having the ’flowers sold; but along the way I will settle on a price.” In 2008 he netted an impressive $300 an acre on his double-crop irrigated sunflower — a combination of modest input costs, excellent yields and strong market prices. — Gary Jorgensen*

About an hour to the northeast of Guymon, Roger Cline has raised double-cropped sunflower near Liberal, Kan., since 2001. Cline says there’s not another crop he can plant after wheat that will sustain itself in the harsh heat and dry conditions of late summer like sunflower — and still provide a healthy yield. When compared to soybeans, grain sorghum or even short-season corn, ’flowers shine brightly, he affirms — especially given the relatively modest inputs required. “It’s the only cash crop that I can double crop [where] I know I can beat the frost — and it uses less water and nutrients than other options,” Cline states.

The southwestern Kansas grower is in the field with his sunflower planter as soon as the wheat combine pulls out. He plants sunflower shallow — only about a half inch deep — dropping 32,- to 33,000 seeds per acre. His sandy ground is typically dry at that time, so the center-pivot sprinkler is turned on immediately after planting, applying about a half inch of water to assure good germination and emergence.

Most of Cline’s second-crop sunflower goes under a split pivot with corn, or a from a shared well where water is distributed to two separate sprinklers. As is the case at Hitch Farms, corn gets top priority when it comes to irrigation water. His fertility program on the ‘flowers consists of a starter combination of 15 lbs of nitrogen and 10 of phosphorus, followed later by about 30 pounds of N through the sprinkler. Cline is a believer in CoRoN®, a controlled release nitrogen product from Helena Chemical.

Cline does his own scouting for sunflower (head) moth, his main insect problem. He sprays at the first evidence of moth activity rather than wait for the economic threshold population to be reached.

Cline, who follows his second-crop ’flowers with corn, says the next year’s corn-after-sunflower is “always taller and darker green” than before sunflower entered his rotation. “The old horror story of sunflower being hard on the ground is a myth,” he ventures. “A farmer needs to understand that he [must] feed his next crop what it needs in the way of nutrients and water. Sunflower helps mellow the ground with the deep taproot. I have a theory that the corn roots channel into that old sunflower root [zone] to establish a deeper root system” of their own.

Cline has been able to achieve double-cropped yields in excess of 2,000 lbs/ac. Add in a 2:1 oil premium, and the return is handsome. Though he’s tried other irrigated crops (like potatoes and popcorn), the moderate inputs, limited water needs and late-season standability of his second-crop ’flowers have made Cline a definite fan of this cropping option. — Gary Jorgensen*

About 200 miles to the northeast of Liberal, another Kansas grower, Karl Esping, produces double-cropped sunflower near Lindsborg (south of Salina). His initial interest in the crop evolved on the heels of a failed wheat crop in 2007. While recuperating from heart surgery that summer, Esping spent a lot of “computer time” investigating sunflower and its feasibility for his farm. It had been grown as a “catch crop” in his vicinity in the past, but local market outlets were lacking, and the “sunflower is a weed” mindset still dominated in the area.

But McPherson County is quite conducive to double-cropped sunflower, Esping affirms. “Our annual rainfall is in the 26- to 28-inch range,” he says, “and it’s not unusual for us to receive eight to 12 inches during the summer growing season.” That bodes well for timely germination and strong emergence.

The past few years have actually been a little too wet for sunflower, Esping adds. “The roots haven’t had to go down very deep for moisture” he points out, so that has increased the risk of wind-induced late-fall lodging. “It’s also why I tend to plant short-stature ’flowers,” says the Kansas Sunflower Commission member. Being able to use a high-clearance ground sprayer to treat for insects and/or desiccate the ’flowers is another reason Esping likes the shorter varieties.

Esping applies a preplant burndown to his no-till wheat stubble three to seven days ahead of planting the ’flowers. He used to go with a Spartan/glyphosate tank mix, but now opts for a split application despite the higher application cost. Palmer amaranth is his most notable weed problem. “It’s a big issue in grain sorghum around here, and now it’s developing in our sunflower fields,” he says.

Planting date typically is mid- to late July. (Esping began planting his 2009 double-crop ’flowers on July 10. Due to very wet weather, he didn’t complete planting until the 30th.) “My rule is to plant the seed to moisture,” he says, going with a seed drop in the low 20s. His JD MaxEmerge planter is set up with residue managers and Keeton seed firmers to facilitate good seed-to-soil contact.

The mid- to late July planting date helps Esping dodge the sunflower moth, but he takes no chances and still monitors his fields for this insect.

Since sunflower does well accessing residual nitrogen from the wheat and preceding corn crop, Esping’s applied N is lower than recommended — usually just 60 to 80 lbs/ac, sidedressed when the ’flowers are 12 to 18 inches tall. That’s been sufficient to help him achieve yields from 1,500 to 1,800 lbs/ac since getting into double-cropped ’flowers in 2007.

Esping spreads manure on the sunflower ground following harvest. He’ll go to either dryland or irrigated corn the next year (depending on field location). Soybeans typically are planted after that, followed by the wheat/sunflower double-crop combination.

“It’s a very viable option,” Karl Esping says of his foray into double-cropped sunflower. He expects its acreage to expand in his area during the coming years, due both to its profitability and the agronomic benefits it offers the entire rotation. — Don Lilleboe

• Gary Jorgensen of Sublette, Kan., is High Plains coordinator for the National Sunflower Association.

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