When south central Nebraska farmer Anson Nielsen decided to plant sunflower for the first time, he never thought it would draw a crowd. He was simply looking to try double-cropping sunflower for profit potential.
Growing sunflower in an area where the big yellow bloom isn’t a common sight certainly caught the attention of his neighbors and occasional curious onlookers who stopped to take photos of this rare sight.
The experiment turned out exceptionally well for the Minden, Neb., farmer, who was pleasantly surprised at the results. He ended up with 1,345-lb ’flowers on the 80-acre dryland field.
While that might not sound like much of a bumper crop to some more-seasoned growers, there are two factors that might surprise folks: First, that sunflower yield was achieved after only one inch of rain fell throughout the entire growing season. And second, that field’s oil content came in at a range of 46-48%, which, he was told, was some of the best recorded at the delivery point.
“My dad, whom I farm alongside, had tried confection sunflower over 20 years ago,” Nielsen explains. “I had to make a choice on what to follow wheat, so we decided to give double-crop sunflower a try. I’d definitely say we were pleased with the results.”
Nielsen relied on advice from his dad as well as his good friend, Jim Palmer, who farms 40 miles to the west near Elm Creek, Neb. Palmer hooked Nielsen up with a short-stature Triumph hybrid suitable for the area. Both growers provide a unique perspective from this locale, where sunflower acres are not common, but have potential to increase.
For the past 12 years or so, Palmer has been growing 300-400 acres of irrigated oil sunflower annually. He says he got into sunflower for the rotational benefits. “I was looking for something after wheat on a double-crop option,” he explains. “Now I’m on a typical five-crop rotation in four years with soybeans/wheat/sunflower/ corn/corn. I’ll admit there was a bit of a learning curve when I first started; but it’s really worked well for our rotation, and now more than ever that our irrigation water is limited.”
Nielsen’s dryland field was planted no-till on wheat stubble on June 18 into good moisture. “At the time of planting, we had decent — but I wouldn’t say an overabundance of — moisture. During the growing season, we only ended up getting two half-inch rain events. But one came when the seeds were filling, so that was well-timed,” Nielsen notes.
Despite good moisture going in, the sunflower plants did show signs of stress. “The sunflower seemed to be able to go after that moisture that the wheat hadn’t utilized,” Nielsen relates. “I did dig up some of the ’flowers and found it interesting that the taproot had gone sideways for the most part.”
Just prior to planting, Nielsen made one pass with Spartan to go after the troublesome weeds: horseweed (or marestail) and Palmer Amaranth. He also went in with a preplant application of 60 lbs of liquid nitrogen. The ’flowers were planted in 36-inch rows with a planter equipped with eSet® meters from Precision Planting (for which Nielson happens to be an authorized dealer). Target plant population was 23,000 per acre.
Another pass was made mid-season with a herbicide for some volunteer wheat. He also sprayed for head moth, noting that he did see some moth activity — but with no experience growing sunflower, he couldn’t say whether the moth pressure was “heavy.” He chose to spray because “we went on the side of caution.”
Nielsen says he was shooting for ton ’flowers. But the lack of moisture was a game changer. He figured sunflower was just like any other crop at the base: put it on good land and utilize best practices. He knew the land was good after pulling off 55-bu wheat prior and 60-bu soybeans the year before.
Palmer, who planted his sunflower on June 23, had his best crop ever this year at 2,500 lbs/ac with oils coming in at 43-44%. That date was the earliest he’s ever planted sunflower. He’s pushed the planting date back as far as July 19 some years. “I attribute my best crop ever to that early planting date, but that might not work for everyone,” Palmer says.
One major benefit both men see with sunflower is the preservation of the wheat stubble that retains snowfall over the winter. “I have a field of beans that had gone into wheat stubble right across the road from this sunflower field. A little while back this winter, we had a 9-inch snow event. You look at that bean field and there’s very spotty, minimal snow catch,” Nielsen explains. “However, you look at the wheat stubble and sunflower stalks, and deep snow had collected — upwards of 18 inches in some spots — from where it had blown in from other fields. That will end up being valuable moisture retained this spring.”
Another benefit that Nielsen sees for those who use irrigation would be the crop’s drought tolerance. “If there are continued or even more water restrictions put on irrigation, sunflower could have the potential to pick up acres,” he says.
“The further you go west of here, the more limitations there are on water,” Palmer explains. “We are real dry here, and water supplies are getting tighter.”
One drawback to sunflower, the men see as being an issue for farmers in this area, is marketing options. Weed control is also a concern, but Palmer thinks that Spartan has been doing a decent job on most fields. “The biggest thing is that some people are just set in their ways,” he says. “Some think sunflower is hard on the ground. I just don’t see it.”
The greatest positive impact Palmer sees for sunflower in his operation is the rotational benefits. “In this area, corn and beans year after year works, but it’s not beneficial in the long run. The diversity in rotation that sunflower adds is worth quite a bit.”
— Sonia Mullally
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