Ample heat, subsoil moisture helps sunflowers soar

National Sunflower Association of Canada looking at possible introduction 
of bird-repellent products used south of the border

It was a great summer to be a sunflower.

“Yields are coming really good this year,” said Denis Touzin of Keystone Grain. “They like heat, and we had the heat.”

With an unusually dry fall making a pre-Thanksgiving harvest possible for the first time in years, early reports are pegging yields at 2,500 to 3,200 pounds for confectionery types with good test weights and few disease issues. About 90,000 acres of sunflowers were seeded this spring, nearly triple the 2011 acreage.

With roots reaching down five to seven feet, the crop was able to tap the generous amounts of subsoil moisture left over from last year’s deluge, said Touzin.

However, the bumper crop is weighing on prices, said Mike Durand of Deloraine-based Nestibo Agra, which has been buying black oil varieties.

“Yesterday I was at 28.5 (cents per pound), today I’m at 27,” he said.

Confectionery types, or “stripes,” are paying 27 for “round” and 28 for “long” shelled types, he added.

Of course, a good year for sunflowers is also a good year for blackbirds.

“There’s nothing worse than having your crop a month away from being put in the bin and it just being completely stolen,” said Claire Kincaid, a Wawanesa-based agronomist with the National Sunflower Association of Canada.

At Westman Agricultural Diversification Organization test plots near Melita, swarms of blackbirds had flown away with a good portion of the data from a plot trial consisting of 10 confectionery and 10 black oil varieties.

“In a couple of days the trial was cleaned out,” Kincaid said. “I don’t know how they flew away, they ate so much seed.”

Scare cannons only work for a few days before the birds become accustomed to them. Mowing cattail-filled potholes when they dry out “can help,” said Kincaid, because they are nesting sites for blackbirds.

Blackbird losses are of particular concern because they are not insurable.

The sunflower industry group is lobbying for emergency use of various products registered south of the border. Avipel, a non-lethal, cracked corn-based bait that causes digestive discomfort for birds has shown some efficacy, said Kincaid.

Some of the WADO plots showed signs of sclerotinia damage, a common pathogen that also infects canola. The soil-borne infection can travel up the root to the stalk creating a lesion that surrounds the stem and choking off the flow of nutrients, which results in plants flopping over and reducing seed weight. Sclerotia may continue to grow as black lumps in the stem, return to the soil and cause problems in subsequent canola crops, Kincaid noted.

However, spraying to prevent sclerotinia in sunflowers is problematic because it can attack the roots, leaves and heads.

Weed control is another issue, and herbicide-tolerant sunflower hybrids using Clearfield and Express technology are being developed to control grass and broadleaf weeds in-crop, said Fred Parnow of Seeds2000, a Minnesota-based company working on both oil and confection varieties.

“The other thing that’s really big in Canada is downy mildew resistance,” said Parnow.

Even test plots never seeded to sunflowers have shown very heavy downy mildew infection in certain varieties, said Day, who advises growers to consider resistant hybrids, especially in the southwest part of the province.

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