In late April a few isolated sunflower heads poked above a head-high green canopy, stretching to follow the sun, early sentinels of what promised soon to be a field of solid gold.

“It's a pretty crop,” says Johnny Gwosdz (Gooch), who raises sunflowers, cotton, corn and grain sorghum with his brother Joe and cousin Martin in Jim Wells County, down in the South Texas Coastal Bend.

“We've been trying to find a good rotation crop with high residue,” Johnny says.

“We've grown sunflowers every year except one since 1993,” Martin says. “They are more drought tolerant than corn. They can take some dry weather and still make a crop.”

Johnny says production costs for sunflowers run a little higher than for grain sorghum but with less risk. “We don't have the iron chlorosis problems with sunflowers that we do with milo. And we don't have the threat of aflatoxin that we risk with corn.”

He says the crop takes a little more fertilizer than grain sorghum and about the same as a corn crop.

“Getting a good stand is the key,” Martin says. “It's sometimes tough to do and we've found that we can still make a decent yield with a skimpy stand. We haven't figured out why.”

Johnny says a hard rain just after planting, especially in sandy soils, may create stand problems.

Seed little weaker

“If we get rain on top of them, the soil crusts over and slows them down,” Johnny says. “A light rain, however, is ideal. The seed don't have the early strength of some other crops.”

Weed control poses few problems. “We use a pre-emergence herbicide and cultivate one time,” Martin says. “We got by this year without having to plow at all.”

Reducing tillage has been a key factor for the past few years. Johnny says they use a combination of almost no-till, minimum till and conventional tillage methods.

“A lot of area farmers are moving more to a spray rig and away from a plow,” says Warren Kopplin, manager of Orange Grove Co-op in Orange Grove, Texas, where the Gwosdz farm markets sunflowers.

“They save on fuel, equipment costs and labor,” Kopplin says. “Most farmers simply can't afford to pay as much for labor as industry does.”

Johnny says they've reduced tillage more this year than in the past because of “the unpredictability of labor. Diesel costs also encouraged us to change tillage methods. We've already cut fertilizer rates to the bare minimum so we can't reduce that any more.”

They are putting in some fertilizer test plots this year to “see which application methods work best,” Johnny says.

Head moth

Martin says insect pests may cause some trouble for sunflowers. “We have to control head moth, but we usually only have to spray one time with an airplane.”

Preventive spray makes sense, they say. “If we don't spray early, we risk delaying the crop,” Johnny says. “We can't risk waiting; we have to protect the crop early.”

Insect damage has never been a serious problem, “because we spray on a timely basis,” Martin says. “Overall, sunflowers are a lot easier to manage than cotton.”

They have more trouble with deer eating young plants. “They like the small ones,” Johnny says. “But we don't have problems with wild hogs. They will not bother sunflowers, but they destroy corn.”

Feb. 15 planting

Rogelio Mercado, Jim Wells County Extension agent, says farmers typically plant sunflowers around Feb. 15, so they use moisture early and avoid some of the drought and heat stress that threaten later crops.

“We can plant a little earlier and some growers have tried to plant in January, but we don't recommend it,” Mercado says. Typical harvest begins in late June, depending on weather.

“We try to get sunflowers out before we start harvesting grain sorghum,” Johnny says.

“That's not always the case,” Martin says. “Harvest may be slow, slower than grain sorghum. We use a row crop head.”

If conditions have been unusually wet, lodging may be a problem. “Wind can also be a factor,” Martin says.

Slower handling

Kopplin says the co-op may have to slow down a bit to handle sunflowers. “We need to put a little air on them and we have to slow down to clean them up. They're really not that difficult to handle, a little itchy from the dust, similar to grain sorghum, but they are light so they don't clog up machinery.”

Johnny and Martin say the 2004 sunflower crop was the best they ever made. “With more seed and a bit more fertilizer it could have been even better,” Johnny says. “Rainfall was good and rain is always the key factor.”

They say the 2005 crop was in pretty good shape in mid-April and needed two or three rains to make another excellent crop. Good yields range from 1,500 to 2,000 pounds per acre. “We don't often make 2,000,” Martin says.

Kopplin says the Orange Grove Co-op will handle close to 5,000 acres of sunflowers this year and says the acreage could be close to 7,000. Farmers may have planted more, he says but “they couldn't get any more seed.”

He says in the immediate area, sunflowers account for 37,000 to 40,000 acres with as many as 65,000 from Uvalde into the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Most are for confectionery uses. “We might have a few oil varieties,” Kopplin says.

Johnny says the crop provides an economical alternative for rotation with grain sorghum, corn and cotton. “If the price stays up, we could plant more. We are pretty far away from where we ship, up into the High Plains. But we don't have to pay transportation charges.”

Contracts key

“Contracts are the key,” says Kopplin. “Growers get paid for total pounds with no grade factors.”

“Sunflowers will net us a little more than milo,” Johnny says, “but profit depends on those contracts. We get a flat rate for clean seed.”

“We contract all our sunflowers,” Martin says. “We know when we plant that we have a market.”

Currently, sunflowers take up about 15 percent of the farm's acreage, equal to cotton. Corn accounts for 30 percent and milo for 40 percent.

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com