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Summer Seminar Grower Panel: Questions & Answers

Wednesday, August 31, 2022
filed under: Optimizing Plant Development/Yields

Coleman, Peirce, Kirkmeyer, Dowdle
Sunflower producers and NSA board members Clark Coleman (North Dakota), Cameron Peirce (Kansas),
Tom Kirkmeyer (Colorado) and Tom Dowdle (Minnesota) fielded questions regarding their production and
marketing practices during the 2022 NSA Summer Seminar in Grand Forks.
        One of the highlights of the 2022 NSA Summer Seminar was a four-member grower panel responding to a number of audience and moderator questions regarding their sunflower production and marketing practices.  Moderated by NSA Executive Director John Sandbakken, the panel consisted of Clark Coleman, Bismarck, N.D., producer and current NSA board chairman; Cameron Peirce, Hutchinson, Kan., producer and NSA board member; Tom Kirkmeyer, Brighton, Colo., producer and current NSA first vice president; and Tom Dowdle, Kennedy, Minn., producer and NSA board member.
        Here are several of the questions along with summaries of the growers’ replies.
What are your main methods of communication with suppliers, marketers, other growers, etc.?
        “I use my cell phone for just about all my information,” Clark Coleman noted.  “I can receive emails and respond to them.  And I can view newsletters of interest to me.”  The other three panel members agreed that cell phones were their predominant means of communication.
        Text messages were preferred rather than emails or phone conversations.  “I typically respond quick to texts than to emails,” Coleman said.  “Also, texts allow me to do ‘bullet point’ communications rather than get into an extended conversation.”  Tom Kirkmeyer concurred, adding that for someone in a remote geographical area, it’s often simpler to receive and respond to a text.
Where do you source most of your marketing-related information?
        “Over the years you develop relationships with people,” Coleman noted, “and if there’s something coming, often I’ll get a phone call.  Plus, I get market newsletters.”  Cameron Peirce said that since sunflower is not a major crop in his Kansas area, he actually receives quite a few calls from other growers with both market and agronomic questions.  Peirce himself looks to key industry contacts with any marketing questions.  “We bin all our sunflower in the farm and then market them from there,” he noted.
        Kirkmeyer grows strictly confections, which are 100% contracted, so “we rely on industry for pricing.”  Tom Dowdle said he contracts about half of his oil-type sunflower while staying in communication with potential buyers regarding the other half. 
Who do you count on for trusted agronomic information on sunflower?
        “It’s all about relationships,” Coleman stated.  “I talk with elevator people, get to know them.  And people like you (referring here to John Sandbakken).  It’s all about education and trust.”
        Peirce emphasized the importance of industry personnel for education and updates, as well as university crop specialists.  Kirkmeyer and Dowdle agreed.  “When it comes to agronomics, I can’t keep up with everything that comes out,” Dowdle added.  “So I have a good crop consultant relationship that I rely on for up-to-date information.”
Do you read and have confidence in university in-season crop and pest reports?
        “I don’t read them cover to cover, but I’ll go through and find [articles] that relate to the time of season we’re in,” Coleman said.  When it comes to crop and market newsletters in general, “I probably read them a lot closer in the winter time.”  Peirce concurred that reading materials get more attention in the off-season due to time demands during the growing season.
        “I read the NSA newsletter every time it comes out,” Kirkmeyer related.  Dowdle said the same, “and then, of course, The Sunflower magazine.”
What advice do you give others who ask about getting into sunflower production?
        “If someone comes to me and asks about sunflower, my comment to them is, ‘Why wouldn’t you?’ ” Coleman stated.  “You have this plant that does really well in drought conditions, a plant that’s going to ‘get’ this fertilizer that you can’t utilize [with another crop].  It helps break up weed cycles, disease cycles.  I could never see sunflower not being on our farm for rotation purposes.  It fits.”
        Peirce relays some caution when speaking with potential first-time Kansas sunflower producers.  “I’ll tell them that with sunflower, you really only have one chance to control the weeds.  Start with a field that does not have much weed pressure.  We struggle with Palmer amaranth.  It’s a vicious weed.  For someone who hasn’t grown sunflower before, they need to know this crop doesn’t have the weed control options that some other crops do.
        “Then I will start talking about the benefits of sunflower.”
        Kirkmeyer agrees that weeds are a main concern in his Colorado vicinity near Denver.  Still, “sunflower is about the only crop we can grow in our area [to disrupt weed cycles in other crops].
        “The other issue I run into a lot is the harvest equipment. Some people don’t realize the need and cost for a specialized header for sunflower.” 
        “For a new grower coming to me, I make sure they have the right kind of planter,” remarked Dowdle.  “And, make sure they have a good preplant weed control plan.
        “I’m just 30 miles from the Canadian border, so we talk about getting those seeds in the ground as soon as it’s favorable for planting, because we have to look at the back end in terms of frost and the possibility they won’t mature.”  Plus, if it’s a late fall, “chances are you’ll need a good drying system.”
Do you use sustainability practices to help conserve moisture, soil, crop inputs?
        “We do lots of soil sampling on a regular basis,” Clark Coleman responded.  “We don’t do every field every year, but I do at least one or two fields of each commodity to see what happened in that year.”  The Coleman operation has been no-till for three decades, benefiting from resulting savings in soil moisture and soil loss.  “Our soil’s water-holding capacity has been a big benefit,” he noted.  The farm has three center-pivot irrigation systems, “and we work with the electric co-op to shut off at high-peak hours,” he added.  “We closely monitor the water we’re putting down.”
        The Peirce central Kansas farm is among those enrolled in the General Mills regenerative agriculture pilot program.  “We’re doing cover crops, soil tests, trying to build our soil health over time,” Cameron observed.  “Sunflower is a big part of that.”
        Tom Kirkmeyer is exclusively no-till.  Referring to the 2021 drought conditions, he said “if we were ‘tillage’ right now in Colorado, it would be over already.  We have our sunflower in three-foot-tall wheat stubble to try to save as much moisture as possible.”
        The Dowdles soil test all of their northwestern Minnesota fields prior to the next growing season.  “We have sugarbeets in our rotation, so the fields need to be VRT sampled on acre grids because nitrogen has to be at a minimum [in beets nearing harvest] to maximize sugar content.  So we work to get our N right — and, we try to keep as much residue as possible on the tops of our fields.”
What are your respective fertility programs with sunflower?
        “I put down dry fertilizer with my no-till drill, probably 35-40 lbs of MAP with a micronutrient package,” Coleman reported.  “Then I’ll apply between 65 to 90 units of N, usually in the form of a 28.  We’ll spray it on with our burndown or preplant with our row planter.  And we’ll do the same thing with 2.5 gallons of Riser® starter fertilizer.”
        The Peirces do a full fertility program on their single-crop sunflower, but take a lean approach with double-crop ’flowers.  “We don’t put on a starter (with double-crop),” he remarked.  “There’s more risk with double-crop ’flowers as far as getting a decent crop (due to questionable rainfall at that time of year).  We have plenty of fertility for the wheat crop, and the sunflower ‘eats’ that up.”
        Kirkmeyer likewise invests solidly in fertilizer on his wheat, with all of his sunflower going into wheat stubble.  “We sometimes broadcast UAN if there is not enough carryover from wheat,” he noted. “As for starter fertilizer, we rely on the soil sample recommendations.”
        The Dowdles soil test every upcoming sunflower field, typically fertilizing (using dry urea) for a yield goal of 2,400 to 2,500 lbs/ac.  “We don’t do any starter or phosphate because we typically put our sunflower on either barley or wheat ground,” Tom stated.  “And we ‘pour’ the phosphate on our wheat, so we typically have plenty of residual left for the next year of sunflower.  We have lots of potassium in our heavy soils, so we’re not worried about potash.”
Do you employ a crop consultant?
        “I currently do not have a crop consultant,” Coleman stated.  “The chemical company I work with has access to crop consultants; and given the amount of money I spend with them, I’m just upfront and say, ‘If I need an agronomist, help me out.’  I feel they’re trying to help me be successful, because if I’m not, it obviously affects them.”
        “I’ve used a crop consultant for 30 years, and I do place quite a bit of value on what he says,” Peirce said.  “I typically follow his recommendations to a ‘T’ on irrigated ’flowers; not quite as closely on dryland.”
        Kirkmeyer operates similarly to Coleman, not employing a consultant himself but still consulting with hia local co-op’s agronomist.  Dowdle employs one crop consultant, “mainly for our row crops.”  He relies upon his chemical/fertilizer supplier for advice pertaining to the small grains.
How do crop budget considerations — e.g., sunflower’s projected net profit versus that of other crops — impact your decision on how much sunflower to plant?
        “Crop rotation is the biggest factor in our operation,” Coleman affirmed.  “I can tweak it one way or another, depending upon what the market is telling me.  But getting too lopsided one way or another is going to screw up our rotation – and it’s too hard to fix that.”
        Peirce agreed.  “We pretty much have a rotation that we stick with and maybe tweak a bit.  But we largely stick with a set rotation.”  It’s a similar story for Kirkmeyer.  Plus, he adds, one always has to be alert to potential herbicide carryover issues if you start switching crops on a given piece of ground.
        “We have a set rotation,” Dowdle confirms.  “I can deviate a little, depending on new market opportunities.  But we religiously do at least a four-year rotation on sunflower for disease control.”
How important is an Act of God clause in your sunflower contracts?
        “It’s really important,” Coleman stated.  “I like to have 50 to 60% of our crops contracted up front, so the Act of God is really good.  Last year (2021) was a good example, given the drought we had.”
          While Peirce has not used an Act of God contract to date, 100% of Kirkmeyer’s confection sunflower acreage is contracted with an Act of God included.  For Dowdle, “the [birdseed] company we supply to automatically builds it into the contract.”  He typically forward contracts about half his anticipated sunflower crop. — Don Lilleboe
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