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Crops

Confectionary sunflowers compete well with traditional Big Horn Basin crops

Written by Christy Martinez

Park County sunflower producer Lyle Euelo says that sunflowers can be a very competitive crop with his area’s traditional crops of beans, malt barley and sugarbeets, and that he’s had good success with the confectionary crop.
“The difference in inputs between sugarbeets and sunflowers is that sunflowers take less than half – the seed doesn’t cost even close to beets, and you don’t have the tech fee,” he notes. “Your input costs are similar, and maybe a little higher, than barley.”
Sunflower growers in Euelo’s area have worked closely with Randy Violett of Powell’s UW Research and Extension Center. Violett has conducted variety trials and research to determine the technical details of producing the crop in Wyoming, including plant density, varieties and fertilization.
“Plant density will affect seed size,” says Violett. “The less dense the population, the more room there is for the seed head to grow, and the larger your seed will get.”
Violett says current recommendations call for 17,000 plants per acre. Euelo says he’s been planting between 17,000 and 18,000 plants per acre.
“Any lower, and you have a lot of big heads and more field loss because it’s difficult to harvest them,” he says. “You don’t want to go over 19,000 per acre, because your seed size and production will drop.”
Violett says growers should be aware of issues that could reduce the plant stand, like jackrabbits, antelope and deer.
“When the plants are just emerging they’re ripe for the picking, and they’ll never grow a seed head if they’re eaten off. A cooperator killed over 75 jackrabbits one evening on his place, and he estimated that in one year they cost him $25,000,” says Violett.
Although sunflower plates are available for planting, Violett says most growers use sweet corn plates.
“Our advice is to get silicone and fill every other hole to adjust the planter density,” he says. “Finger planters tend to work really well, and one of the biggest issues is worn seed tubes, where sunflowers can get caught.”
“Order small or medium seed, as they seem to emerge better than bigger seeds, in my experience,” says Euelo. “Sunflowers do not do well in cold soil. One time, about five years ago, at the end of May we got some cold weather that came in while the plants were germinating, and the sunflowers started to grow down into the soil, because they grow to wherever the warmer temperature is. Then they had a gooseneck when they did start coming up.”
Euelo says to plant one to two inches deep, with two inches being the absolute deepest.
“You really don’t want to go that deep. One-and-a-half to one-and-three-quarters inches are what we find works best. The seeds are nice and big, but they don’t have much push,” he says, adding that growers in the warm soils of Kansas and Colorado can plant them deeper than those in Wyoming.
Regarding herbicides, Violett says he’s tested many over several growing seasons. One thing he’s found out is that sunflowers are very sensitive to residue, and growers need to be mindful of what was applied to a field the previous year.
Euelo says he has a field that had a lot of nightshade, and he had treated it with Stinger.
“If you use Stinger, it’s best not to follow up with sunflowers,” he says. “Some will pull out of it and keep going and produce a nice head, but some don’t. The Stinger stays in the ground a long time, because in the same field I’ve rotated barley and come back to sunflowers and still had chemical reaction in some places, even though it’s been plowed twice.”
Violett says the dry bean strategy of pre-irrigating, planting into the moisture and then spraying the weed flush from that irrigation with glyphosate also works well with sunflowers.
Euelo says he fertilizes his sunflowers very similar to the way he’d fertilize malt barley, with at least 150 units of nitrogen to get a good yield.
“Test soils both shallow and deep,” he says. “Sunflowers have a good taproot, and a very aggressive surface root system, so they’ll mine some nutrients for you.”
Violett agrees, saying, “Sunflowers are scavengers, and they will go after nitrogen up to six feet deep. That’s one thing that’s really appealing about sunflowers – especially in a sugarbeet rotation – is that they can get down deep and get after the nitrogen.”
Euelo does add that sunflowers are very sensitive to salts, and can’t be treated like corn with fertilizer close to or on top of the seed.
“There’s no need to sidedress. I’ve done some of that, and research has found you might as well put all your fertilizer down up front, because they’ll do just as well,” he notes.
Cultivation can also be incorporated into weed management. Violett recommends cultivating at least twice, but says that some years that’s tough because of rapid growth.
“When they start to grow, you don’t have much time,” says Euelo. “They’ll be really slow starting out, but when it warms up and they take off, you better be on the ball.”
Euelo recommends not giving sunflowers too much water up front.
“Irrigate them after the second cultivation, unless they start to wilt or are in light, sandy soil,” he says. “Let them develop a taproot. Make sure your soil profile is full, and between bud stage and bloom is when you want to make sure they have plenty of water.”
For later irrigations, Euelo says he’s found it works best to move the water through quickly, avoiding the saturation given to barley or sugarbeets.
“What can happen is you might get sunflowers with a great big head, and if the ground’s all wet and a 60-mile-per-hour wind comes along they can fall over,” he says, noting that he doesn’t see that as much with the newer hybrids, which tend to be stronger.
Both Violett and Euelo recommend removing plants around gated pipe.
“Spray out the plants near irrigation ditches and gated pipes, because it’s not fun to change water when the heads are in the way,” says Euelo.
Now that there are over 1,000 acres of sunflowers in the area, Violett says growers are beginning to run into the need for pest control, including lygus bugs, which he says can be devastating, and the painted lady butterfly larvae.
Row crop heads are used to harvest the crop at 11 percent moisture, usually the end of October into November. In 2010 most contracts paid 26 cents per pound, while this year contracts will pay 30 cents, says Euelo.
“We have a lot of dry bean growers in the area, and if they know how to grow dry beans, they can grow sunflowers,” says Violett. “The management is very similar.”
Christy Martinez is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..