John Riley and Chris Holovach live hundreds of miles apart and farm under quite different environments. But both agree that producing sunflowers under a strip-till system appears to have a definite place in their farming operation.
For Riley, who farms near Cresbard, S.D., the big advantage of strip-till is a warmer seedbed and, correspondingly, quicker germination and emergence. Most sunflowers around Faulk County have been grown under no-till for the past several years. The problem is that the area’s heavy clay soils warm up fairly slow, thus delaying emergence and early plant growth.
Last spring, for example, Riley took mid-May soil temperature measurements in both no-till and strip-till seedbeds. The strip-till zones were 8 F warmer.
Riley, who strip-tills virtually all his corn acreage, just started to move in that direction with ’flowers in 2008. He had hoped to run some side-by-side comparisons with no-till sunflowers last year, but a seeding direction error by the person hired to plant those plots negated that plan.
Some of Riley's strip-tilled acres that were adjacent to no-till ’flowers showed a 500-pound advantage at harvest. However, those fall strip-tilled acres had been fertilized for corn, so it was not an “apples-to-apples” comparison, Riley emphasizes.
Also, he points out, the extra fertility costs on that planned corn ground (higher nitrogen rates, plus phosphorus and sulfur) “just about wiped out the increase in yield” of the strip-till sunflowers in terms of net profit.
Riley runs a 16-row Blu-Jet 6010 strip-till unit with SharkTooth trash managers out front. Depth bands on the trash managers allow them to clean off the tillage zone without gouging into what typically is cold, wet soil.
Turbo coulters avoid slabbing of the wet soils. SealPro disc hillers with 17-inch notched blades till the zone without “exploding” the soil. Since he’s making the strip-till pass in the fall, he doesn’t use baskets or packer wheels.
Under no-till, Riley used to broadcast urea and count on rainfall to incorporate it. Now, he knives in dry fertilizer — from an old Concord tank trailing behind the Blu-Jet — within the plant zone. He also has added torpedo hitches that allow him to pull two anhydrous tanks.
“So we can do a lot of acres on a fill,” he affirms of his lengthy tillage/fertilization setup. “I think we’re going to be a lot more efficient at feeding the plant, while saving money.
“But I still feel the biggest benefit with strip-tilled sunflowers is going to be the black, warm strips, and the evenness of the plant stand."
Though he didn’t take stand counts this past spring, Riley says it was obvious the stand in his strip-till sunflowers was significantly more uniform than that in his no-till ’flowers.
Unlike John Riley, Chris Holovach’s soils are not cold when he plants his sunflower crop. The western Kansas producer has been growing ’flowers for the past decade as a second crop behind wheat, so he’s typically planting them at the end of June or first of July.
Holovach’s Scott County irrigated fields are under split center pivots, with corn planted on the other half. But the wells are quite small (325 to 350 gpm), so the corn needs — and gets — most of the available irrigation water.
Holovach planted his first — and, to date, only — crop of strip-tilled sunflower in 2007. The Scott City grower owns a 12-row “Strip Cat” machine manufactured by Twin Diamond Industries of Minden, Neb. He uses a stripper header while harvesting his wheat, which leaves a lot of straw.
“So then our strip-till is about straw management,” he points out.
In 2007, the Strip Cat was in the field within a day of the late-June wheat harvest. Mole knives tilled the 8-inch-wide zones, and Holovach simultaneously put down 50 pounds of nitrogen to bolster early plant growth. Dual packer wheels (rather than baskets) firmed the soil for the sunflower planter.
Holovach’s 2007 strip-till sunflower experience was hindered by a shortage of water — due to the corn half’s needs, he was able to irrigate the ’flowers just once — and by a heavy infestation of pigweed, which ultimately required hand weeding.
Still, he was encouraged enough by the resulting yield to look at strip-tilling again in 2008. That plan was abandoned, however, because of a very dry spring and summer that left minimal soil moisture or irrigation water available for the double-cropped ’flowers.
Holovach does intend to travel the strip-till sunflower route again in 2009 if moisture conditions allow. Should soil samples indicate very little nitrogen left for the sunflower crop, he’ll apply the needed nitrogen with the Strip Cat — another benefit of strip-tilling, he says.
Soil conditions during the wheat harvest could also play a role.
“If it’s a little wet during wheat harvest and we wait a couple days to plant the sunflowers, the ground can ‘bake’ on us, and we can have terrible emergence problems under no-till,” he notes. “That would be a situation where strip-till really works well” to produce a good seedbed.