Minnesota company renews sunflower seed contracts

Posted 2/24/11

Tim Petry, a field production manager for the Minnesota company, said the varieties likely would remain the same, although they are researching other varieties at the University of Wyoming Powell Research and Extension Center. About 30 people …

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Minnesota company renews sunflower seed contracts


Pleased with the quality of confection sunflower seeds raised in the Powell area in 2010, representatives of Dahlgren and Co. said last week they will increase the price they pay for the crop this year.

Tim Petry, a field production manager for the Minnesota company, said the varieties likely would remain the same, although they are researching other varieties at the University of Wyoming Powell Research and Extension Center. About 30 people attended a meeting for sunflower growers last week.

Petry said growers here produced high-quality seeds destined mostly for Spain, where consumers eat them one by one and favor the larger, longer seeds produced here. Seeds that didn’t meet company standards for snacks in the shell can be used hulled for salad bars or in bird seed.

Bill Sullivan, Dahlgren hybrid seed manager, said they are trying to work out better trucking schedules to deliver the seed to facilities in Minnesota, but he encouraged growers to find more ways to store seeds here until they can be delivered.

Sunflower seeds produced here “looked good last year,” Sullivan said, “although you were all kind of experimenting” with planting techniques and other variables.

“What we liked was the quality,” Petry added.

Sullivan recommended crop insurance for sunflowers, which may seem expensive “but you’re protecting an awful lot of money. A good night’s sleep probably comes with a good insurance policy.”

Growers face higher input costs, especially in the first few seasons, because of buying new equipment or adapting what they own already, Sullivan said.

Crop insurance agent Larry French said growers who want federal crop insurance should talk to an agent by the first of March to file paperwork before the March 15 deadline. For insurance purposes, sunflowers are a new revenue product for 2011, and French said actuarial tables that determine policy costs still are being developed.

Crop insurance coverage is based in part on a grower’s history with the crop, French pointed out. Since so many growers planted sunflowers for the first time in 2010, growers can use their history with crops such as corn or dry beans if necessary, he said.

Lee Craig said growers may also qualify for catastrophic insurance through United States Department of Agriculture programs. Growers have until April to apply for those programs, so they could pursue traditional federal crop insurance first, he said.

Although a few growers planted sunflowers in the past, last year about about 2,000 acres of sunflowers were planted in the Powell area. Lyle Evelo, who has grown the crop for several years, said growers struggled at times with planting and harvesting equipment. Some had trouble harvesting the seeds because severe cold last fall seemed to delay drying of the plants. Growers are still experimenting with planting density and what type of equipment works best to plant and harvest the seeds. Many growers used equipment designed to plant corn modified for sunflower seeds, which are narrow compared to corn.

Evelo said ideal planting conditions include seeding just deeper than an inch into pre-irrigated soil, and he said the soil should be 50 degrees 2 to 3 inches below the surface.

“Sunflowers really like warm soil,” Evelo said. “Anything you can do to warm it up” helps, including cultivating around young plants to loosen and warm up soil around the stems. Sunflowers have a strong tap root and a mass of roots closer to the surface which should not be disturbed, he said. Those deep roots help sunflowers mine fertilizers from the soil. Nitrogen and plant spacing affect plant size most, he said. Sunflowers grow well in poor soil, but alkali patches stunt their growth.

Sunflowers are vulnerable to pests at different growth stages, Sullivan said. Seeds harvested last fall showed little damage from lygus bugs, a common pest that can also affect local alfalfa seed and sainfoin fields. Sullivan said timing is a key to lygus bug damage, because they can get into seeds only when the outer shell is still soft. As seeds mature, they won’t be able to penetrate the harder outer shell but could still damage it — what he termed “an appearance issue.”

Evelo said he had problems with jackrabbits and antelope last summer, especially in a field that borders sagebrush. Jackrabbits “love to eat the little plants coming out of the ground” and antelope will stash their babies in a field while they go from plant to plant grazing on the tops, he said. Frequent scouting of fields can keep pests in check, Evelo said.

At harvest, growers may need to start combining fields when moisture levels are slightly higher than they did last year, Evelo said. Dahlgren officials want plants at about 10 percent moisture, but it’s hard to estimate how quickly plants will dry, and it can vary by plant variety, he said.

“If you have storage, get it in at 14 percent and store it in bins under air,” said Petry.

Timing is critical at harvest, Evelo said.

“Once that plant is ready, get after it,” he said. If moisture is too low, the flower heads can shatter, scattering seeds.