Chad Wetzel jokes about picking up a few dollars by charging visitors who stop to take photos in the sunflower fields he and his father Bruce planted this spring, instead of taking a prevented planting option on the wheat they couldn’t plant last fall.
They figure sunflowers in this shallow soil offer a much better profit opportunity than corn, which has never made decent yields in this field.
Wetzel says folks often stop by the field, situated beside a well-traveled highway in Grayson County, Texas, to take pictures of the flowers, which spread out like a sea of gold. But he’s banking on a better outcome than just a pretty field. “We’re hoping to average 1500 pounds of oilseed per acre,” he says.
They planted 415 acres of a high oleic sunflower variety from Triumph seeds. They get a production contract and a bit of premium for the high oleic variety.
It’s a new venture. “We’ve always rotated wheat and corn,” he says. “We never like to grow corn more than two years in a row on the same land.”
They had intended to plant wheat last fall but wet weather kept them from getting these 415 acres seeded. They considered taking insurance but decided they would rather make a crop. “We wanted something other than corn for this shallow ground,” Bruce says. “Sunflowers are more drought tolerant.”
He says putting sunflowers on the lighter soils allows them to concentrate corn on heavier land and improve productivity. “We can get overall corn yields up and make both areas pay better,” he says.
“We did some research on sunflowers and canola,” Chad says. “We talked to farmers in Ellis County who had done well with sunflowers and we got a good contract before we put any seed in the ground.”
He says a production contract comes with less risk. “And the buyers will pick up at our bins.”
They planted a short-statured variety, “so we could use a ground rig to spray it,” Chad says. “Then it got too wet to use the spray rig and we had to use a plane anyway. We had to spray twice for head moths.”
He says head moth may be the most serious threat to sunflowers. “We sprayed once when 15 percent to 20 percent of the heads were open.” He says pyrethroid insecticides did a god job controlling the pests.
Texas AgriLife Extension agronomist Curtis Jones says the moths may move into the fields from wild sunflowers.
“We possibly could get some corn root worm in sunflowers but it’s not a big concern,” Chad says. “Stem borers could also show up but head moths are the biggest concern.”
They have some weed control issues but nothing available herbicides can’t handle. They plant a Clearfield variety. “We put down a pre-emergence herbicide with a little starter fertilizer.”
They also add a sidedress nitrogen application when the plants reach knee-high. “We use a total of 250 pounds of nitrogen,” Chad says, “and a little phosphate with the planter.”
Chad and Bruce agree that sunflowers are not a big challenge, cheaper to grow than corn and a better market option than milo or canola in their area. “Seed is cheaper than corn but chemical cost may be a little higher,” Chad says. That’s primarily because of head moth control.
They have had no disease pressure but Jones says sunflowers can get rust infestations. The variety the Wetzels are growing has some disease tolerance. “I have five varieties in a test plot near Leonard and some of those have rust,” Jones says.
Planting and harvesting sunflowers may be a bit of a challenget. They need special sunflower plates for the planter and a sunflower header or platform with special pans for the combine. “Harvest is a little more trouble and expense,” Bruce says.
They hope to harvest in early August. “We’re a little behind,” Chad says.
“We hoped to plant about two weeks earlier than we did,” Bruce says. “And I’m still not happy with the stand. I used small corn plates on the planter and I got doubles, triples and some skips.”
But they believe the plants responded and filled in adequately. “We got rain a touch late in season,” Chad says. “But the crop looks fairly good.”
He’s not certain what they’ll make. “We have a target of 1500 pounds per acre and I think 1,000 will be break-even. I just don’t know what to expect. But so far, I’ve seen no reason not to plant sunflowers again next year.
They may try some canola this fall but they don’t see it replacing a lot of wheat acreage. “We can make better than 50-bushel wheat in this area,” Chad says.
“Sunflowers,” he says, “will be a good rotation with corn and wheat, even on better land.”