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Wagners’ Include Confections In Crop Rotation

Tracy Sayler
Sunflower Magazine
February 2004

Soybeans and sugar beets are two mainstay broadleaf crops in the Red River Valley, but Wayne, Daryl, and Gary Wagner include confections in the crop rotation of their farm near Crookston, Minn.

“It’s been a profitable crop for us, and the cost of production is less than for other crops,” says Gary Wagner, pointing out that the seed cost alone is about $20/acre less for sunflower than for glyphosate-resistant soybeans.  “Sunflowers help spread out our workload too.  You put down your spring herbicides, plant it, cultivate it once, spray it once or twice by plane for insects, then harvest it. And you have to be mindful of too many acres of soybeans.  We can get early snow, and by mid October, anything can happen. Sunflower is like production insurance in that respect.”

Like Windjue, they stress the importance of weed control.  “Like kochia, where you may need to do some extra management, like harrow it or use higher rates of Sonolan, and even then control might not be 100%,” says Gary Wagner. Last year they used a combination of Sonolan and Eptam for weed control, but in the past have gotten by just with using Treflan. The don’t use Spartan, because of carryover residual that would affect sugar beets.

Wagner says the new crop insurance rule change allowing sunflower to follow glyphosate-ready soybeans will help weed control efforts in sunflower, to help clean up problem weeds before sunflower is planted. 

In fact, they have noticed a positive plant response in sunflower following soybeans.  “We tried it several years ago on a 30-acre piece, and on the yield map you could see exactly where the line was.  The sunflower was a healthier plant, bigger stalk, and yielded better, just like wheat after soybeans,” says Gary, speculating that soybean’s nitrogen effect or better soil tilth following beans might make the difference.

This year the Wagners are growing 80 acres of confections following soybeans.  But, Gary adds, there is the caveat of increased susceptibility to Sclerotinia in a really wet year. They usually plant sunflower after May 10 on the previous year’s sugar beet ground. It’s a good fit, Gary says, since sugar beets tend to dry out the soil, and sunflowers are good about rooting down to the subsoil and getting moisture and nutrients unused by the beets.  Leftover beet tops also reduce the amount of fertilizing needed for the subsequent year’s sunflower crop.

A lot of farms in northwest Minnesota, including the Wagners, dropped sunflower after problems with the sunflower midge, but acreage and interest in sunflower is picking up again.  The Wagners are still wary of the midge, however.  “We had some sunflower last year in an area with alkali where beans do not work well.  Some of our neighbors were doing the same thing, and too many acres of sunflower in a six to seven-mile area, that’s not good.  And we did see some midge in the field margins. So we’re not going to plant any ‘flowers in that area, to try to help break up the cycle.”

The Wagner farm is recognized as an authority in the use of global positioning satellite (GPS) technology for site-specific farming, or precision ag. They have been using the technology for about 10 years.  Gary even teaches on the subject at the nearby college. (See an overview of the Wagners’ use of precision ag written by Gary, online at http://www.mandakzerotill.org/book17/experience.html)

The Wagners use variable rate nutrient technology to apply fertilizer on their crops, including sunflower.  Soil sampling determines what rates should be used and where the material is to be applied. Then, with an on-board computer together with GPS, they apply fertilizer in a precise manner, making nutrient adjustments based on the soil profile information.

They also use satellite imagery information to scout for sunflower insect problems.  “The color schematic maps give a good indication of crop density, or the heaviest growth areas, and it seems like insects are attracted more to those better growth areas, so we’ll scout those areas more closely,” Gary says.  The Wagners always spray at least their sunflower field borders for insects, and one or two passes over entire fields by plane if necessary.

The Wagners usually harvest sunflower when moisture falls to 12% moisture or under. “You can’t let them stand too long.  Confection stalks won’t stand as long as oils. They’ll start to break if it gets too dry,” says Gary.

Economic return for soybeans and sunflower has been comparable.  “A yield of about 38 bushel beans is pretty realistic for us.  At a price of $7, we’d need 1,700 lb sunflowers to compare with the return on beans, and we’ve easily been doing 1,800 to 2,400 lbs.  Plus, some years you don’t get $7 beans.  Some years it’s closer to $5 beans.”

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