Texas doesn’t grow more sunflowers than any other state — that distinction belongs to North and South Dakota. But the Lone Star State has seen significant gains in acres planted and harvested last year, not to mention in overall production, in recent years, enough to surpass its closest rivals, Kansas (official nickname: “The Sunflower State”) and Colorado. In 2012, Texas was third behind the Dakotas in acres planted, acres harvested, and total production.
In 2012, Texas farmers grew sunflowers on about 100,000 acres, with most of that being on the High Plains. The Rio Grande Valley and the Hill and Ellis County region of Texas each contributes another 20,000 acres or so. The Coastal Bend area around Corpus Christi, including Jim Wells County, also has some acreage.
Because it is a native flower and because it grows here, there and everywhere in the state, people think it’s a low-input crop. It was touted as such for many years by seed companies and others with a vested interest in its success, but Calvin Trostle, an agronomist and sunflower expert for Texas AgriLife Extension in Lubbock, has encountered more than a few unhappy first-time sunflower growers.
One of the main reasons the “low-input” scenario is a little too rosy to stand up to reality is the sunflower head moth. It is, Trostle says, the biggest threat to any sunflower crop.
“I call it the boll weevil of sunflowers, even though it’s an entirely different insect,” Trostle says. “The impact is just as great if it’s not treated. Growing sunflowers is an agreement to make an absolute commitment to scouting and spraying on time.
“That’s the bad news. The good news is we know how to scout, when to spray, what to spray, and the problem, which only occurs during bloom, is over after about 10 days.”
Sunflowers in Texas are grown both as an oilseed crop, where the seeds are crushed for oil, or as a confectionary seed, the kind you see baseball players chewing and spitting in the dugout. Trostle said that Texas historically has produced about two-thirds of its crop for the confectionary market and the rest for oilseed, though that percentage fluctuates with the market. It’s used in rotation with other crops and can be planted early and harvested early. It can also be seen growing wild and unharvested as cover for dove hunters, and a small amount is grown as birdseed.
“The economics can be quite good, and an advantage that some growers like is the crop can be planted early and harvested early,” Trostle said. He added that sunflowers can be planted as late as July, but he recommends an earlier planting for most growers.
On the High Plains, early plantings through early May have a higher potential for the sunflower moth and another pest, the stem weevil, but also higher yield potential. Later plantings typically yield less, and a late crop in the Panhandle will compete with the cotton harvest.
Trostle said that some first-time growers get good results with their initial crop. Sunflowers have deep root systems that help them get through dry times by tapping deep soil moisture. But they also scavenge for nitrogen and might do well the first time around without receiving much nitrogen, but Trostle believes too many growers neglect a good fertility program in the long run.
Another common mistake that first-time growers make is planting too heavily, especially when growing for the confectionary market.
“Due to the lower seed size and its crop value, the confectionary sunflower is a classic example of ‘less is more,’” Trostle said. “Lower plant populations really do lead to a higher proportion of larger seeds.”
In the end, though, the most limiting factor in sunflower production is that pesky sunflower head moth. Trostle begins and ends his presentations to producers with information about the moth and resources for battling it. He backs the recommendations made by AgriLife Extension, but also believes it doesn’t hurt to take those suggestions even further.
“I think AgriLife recommendations in and of themselves are OK, but they don’t leave much room for error,” he says. “If you need to spray for the head moth and you actually get it done at the right time — like the next day — you are probably going to be OK. But too many farmers don’t spray in time.
“Although it goes against the principles of Integrated Pest Management (IPM), collectively, as a group, farmers would be better off if we just sprayed automatically, even if only a few scattered moths are observed.”
For detailed information on growing sunflowers, including varieties, seeding rates, fertility recommendations and treatment for the sunflower moth, visit http://lubbock.tamu.edu/programs/crops/sunflowers/ and http://varietytesting.tamu.edu/.