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Their Sunflower Crop Likes Companionship

Monday, December 1, 2014
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Becoming popular farm meeting speakers was not on Robin and Kelly Griffeth’s radar when they began experimenting with companion crops several years ago. But their successes have, within the past couple years, led to invitations for the north central Kansas father and son to share their story with groups like the Colorado Conservation Tillage Association and Kansas-based No-Till on the Plains, among others.

The Griffeths — Robin farms near Jewell and son Kelly about 14 miles to the west, near Ionia — have been no-till producers since the mid-1990s. They’ve also double-cropped sunflower for the past 13 years, garnering dryland yields of as high as 2,700-2,800 lbs/ac. The 2013 sunflower crop was very marginal due to drought (between 200 to 600 lbs, depending on the field); but growing conditions rebounded in 2014, and the Griffeths were anticipating strong yields across their 700 double-crop sunflower acres (though the fields had not been harvested as of this writing).

Diversity is why the Griffeths began growing sunflower back in 2001. “We were wheat-milo-bean producers,” Robin relates. They had considered adding corn to their rotation instead of sunflower. “But that’s another warm-season grass,” so going with a broadleaf was a better fit from a diversification standpoint.

“Oddly enough, the sunflower diversity was what led us into this other diversity (companion crops),” he notes. “Overall, we’ve expanded our four- or five-species farming system into something like 30 species.”

While their sunflower initially was planted with an air seeder, Robin decided several years ago to seed all his row crops in 15” rows, and thus bought a planter. For sunflower, they were seeking a quicker plant canopy — so they boosted their seed drop to around 27,000/ac. They later decided to go back to 30” rows, however, and correspondingly dropped the seeding rate to around 20,000 because they didn’t see a yield benefit from the higher population.

They also wanted something in between the rows besides the wheat stubble. They weren’t sure exactly what; but a No-Till on the Plains meeting in Salina triggered their interest in companion-cropped peas. “We started out with winter peas because we didn’t want [the companion] to compete with our ’flowers,” Robin recounts. “We were planting the winter peas way out of their season, and they popped right up. But when they hit the 100-degree temperatures, it was like, ‘Whoa!’ So we went to spring peas the following year, and they did better.

“Then, four or five years ago, I was drilling a field to buckwheat but ran out of seed with just a few acres left. I did have some leftover sunflower seed, so planted that in a mix along with radishes, turnips, clovers — about 11 species in all. We wore a path traipsing back and forth to that field strip throughout the season to see what was going on. I think we learned more from that little four-acre strip than we did from the rest of the farm that year!”

Though they initially did not intend to harvest the sunflower in that strip, “we did — just to see how they’d yield. And they did very well,” Robin says. Since that small strip was seeded with a drill, it also convinced them they could seed their second-crop sunflower in a mixture rather than by itself with a planter.

The Griffeths now purchase their companion crop mix from GreenCover Seeds, based at Bladen, Neb. Owned by brothers Keith and Brian Berns, GreenCover Seeds grows numerous species of cover crops — which are then marketed in a variety of mixes — each one custom-designed, factoring in the intended time of planting and desired primary benefits. “We have [GreenCover] mix our sunflower seed in with their seed. They inoculate for the legumes, we put it in our drill and go plant,” Robin explains.

They’ll do a catch test on their Great Plains HD 4000 drill before heading to the field to make sure they’re seeding the desired rate of sunflower. The Griffeths have bumped their sunflower seeding rate back up to 24,-25,000/ac since going with the drill, primarily because they don’t expect as high an emergence percentage as when using a planter or air seeder.

Though sunflower plant spacing with this system obviously is not as consistent as with a row-crop planter or even an air seeder, “it’s not a big issue for us,” according to Robin. There are gaps, but they seldom have doubles or triples, he says. And while the sunflower head size can and does vary across the field as plants compensate, “it’s not as much as you’d think.” The Griffeths use nine-inch pans when harvesting, so travel direction through the row-less fields is not a concern.

Between them, the Griffeths’ companion crop mixtures as of 2014 included more than a dozen species. “Cowpeas is the base in our companions,” Robin says. “We always put buckwheat in, too. That’s our third warm-season (along with sunflower and cowpeas.)” Among their other companion species this year were guar, mung bean, millet, sweet clover, oats, hairy vetch, and sunhemp.

What are some of the main benefits the Griffeths have experienced since introducing companion crops into their double-cropped sunflower fields?

Insect control is a big one. Sunflower head moth traditionally has been their biggest insect headache. “When we were monoculturing sunflower, the objective was to have them all blooming at the same time for when the airplane was flying,” Robin points out. “Now, what we’ve found is, we have so many predators out there that we don’t need to spray. We haven’t applied insecticide for the past four years, so that’s a $20-25/ac savings each time.”

He also believes that the placement of companion crop species in their sunflower fields has aided weed suppression. In some years, depending on weed pressure, the Griffeths will apply a preplant glyphosate-Spartan® tank mix on the harvested wheat ground going into double-cropped ’flowers; in other years, it’s straight glyphosate. They do typically apply a generic grass herbicide to control volunteer wheat, but that’s it in terms of “in-crop” treatments.

Another benefit of the companion crops is overall soil health. That’s more of a long-term, less-visible payoff; but a critically important one, Robin emphasizes.

“Every year is an experiment,” Robin says about the companion crop system. “But I think we’re getting closer to where we want to be.”

Companion crops aside, Robin Griffeth says double-cropped sunflower has been a great addition to his farm’s rotation — and he expects that relationship to continue for the foreseeable future. “We’ve never lost money planting sunflower,” he says — even in a year like 2013 when yields were marginal. The no-till wheat stubble would still require at least two, perhaps three, herbicide treatments prior to the next season’s crop, he points out. “So that’s $45 the next crop has to pay for right off the bat. By double cropping the sunflower there, even if the next crop (typically milo) isn’t any better but just equal, we’re money ahead — because we’ve already covered that cost.” — Don Lilleboe
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