Sunflower Can Brighten Outlook In Drought

Inside Dakota Ag

Tom Young, a South Dakota farmer who is an old hand at growing sunflower, offers some tips for success with a crop that can shine in dry weather.

Published on: March 4, 2013

Sunflowers might be a good cropping option, if the spring remains dry. You don’t have to plant until sometime in June in the Northern Plains, which will give you a lot of time to catch some rains this spring.

A farmer you might want to meet if you are new to sunflowers, or haven’t planted them in a while, is Tom Young, Onida, S.D.

Young is an old hand at sunflower (pardon the pun). His family has been growing sunflowers since the 1970s and he’s the immediate past president of the National Sunflower Association. Some of his top tips about growing sunflowers are:

1) Don’t dry out the soil before planting sunflowers.  “I used conventional tillage to kill weeds and save moisture,” Young says. “But I think I was drying out surface soil so much the weeds couldn’t grow. When Spartan (Authority) and Roundup Ready corn were introduced, herbicidal weed control became much more effective. I started using no-till practices and that’s when my sunflower yields began climbing.”

Tom Young inspects sunflowers on his central South Dakota farm.
Tom Young inspects sunflowers on his central South Dakota farm.

2) It’s okay to wait to plant sunflowers. “We try to have all the sunflowers in by June 20,” Young says. “That allows us to avoid having sunflowers pollinate during the hottest part of August. If we have five days of 100+ degree F heat in August, sunflower blooms won’t handle that.”

3) Control weeds. Young uses pre-application of Spartan, which provides residual weed control. A glyphosate product is used to burn down pre-emerged weeds. Young looks for ways to manage the rotation to make it easier to control weeds in sunflower.  “We realized that cheatgrass was getting a head start because of our late planting strategy. Now we do a cheatgrass burndown in April, once snowmelt is gone. Clean corn helps set up clean sunflowers, too," he says.

4) Fertilize. “Do your soil tests and make sure you have 60 to 80 pounds of nitrogen available,” Young says. “But push your sunflowers to go deeper. Because sunflower roots go so deep, we’re finding we’re using moisture and nutrients that got away from other crops.”

5) Control insects, but don’t over treat. "Scout your fields for insects rather than just scheduling spraying,” Young says. “You’re killing beneficial insects along with the pests, so use sprays carefully.”

6) Think about residue. Young plants spring wheat and winter wheat behind sunflowers. Residue may be a little skimpy after harvesting sunflowers, but Young expects cover crops to help remedy that.

Loretta Sorenson, Yankton, S.D., interviewed Young and others for ideas on how to succeed with sunflowers in a recent issue of Dakota Farmer. See: