Hayden Peirce, who will be a senior at Haven High School this year, planted this sunflower research plot as part of his Supervised Agricultural Experience program through FFA. Hayden farms the land for the Haven school district. The land was given to the school when the naval base in the area closed. Besides the research plots, Hayden harvested wheat from the acreage in June and also planted mung beans, which he is growing for Kauffman Seed. (Journal photo by Amy Bickel.)

Hayden Peirce’s crop will go to the birds.

The Haven High School senior recently led a group of farmers toward his sunflower field on Reno County’s former Naval base, hoping they can learn a little more about the varieties suitable for Kansas and the crop’s expanding markets.

For the past few years, Hayden has farmed the 120 acres given to the Haven school district when the base closed as part of his FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience. Another 10 acres of pasture is rented by another Haven FFA student.

“It’s a good experience for him and good knowledge for the rest of us,” said his father, Cameron, who farms near Hutchinson.

Cameron Peirce said he finds sunflowers a good fit in his rotation. He serves on the Kansas Sunflower Commission board.

“It is a good rotation crop for us, following wheat behind it or whatever,” he said.

North and South Dakota, Kansas, Colorado and Texas are among the top states for sunflower production according to the National Sunflower Association. Midwest farmers are expected to harvest 1.46 million acres, up 4 percent from 2017.

Hayden said he planted the plots himself and made all the decisions on the acreage. The plots are 12 rows wide. He used the same management plan on all the varieties and planted the plots at 21,000 seeds per acre.

Hayden’s plots

Varieties planted were from Pioneer, Croplan, Mycogen and Midland.

A few highlights include:

450 E HO: The Croplan variety by WinField United is a 94-day maturity with excellent stalk strength and good drought tolerance. It has high yield and oil potential, said John Watts, a district sales manager for WinField.

3732: The 95-day maturity variety now offered was developed by Syngenta, Watts said. In 2016, Syngenta decided to exit the sunflower business in North America. WinField United reached an agreement to access the company’s germplasm.

The conventional sunflower has good drought tolerance, he added.

“It has been a workhorse in the Syngenta line,” he said.

3845: “This one probably has one of the highest oil content year in and year out,” Watts said of the Croplan variety, noting the variety typically had more than 40 percent oil content. It also is one of the germplasms accessed from Syngenta.

545 CL: This newer Clearfield hybrid “is probably the one we have had the best luck with the past two or three years, especially in the south-central Kansas area,” Watts said.

The variety is high yielding with good stress tolerance and good oil per acre potential.

Peirce said he has planted it the last three years. Two years ago on dryland it made 3,000 pounds per acre. Last year on irrigation, it averaged 3,500 pounds per acre.

Pioneer 63HE90 and 64HE01: Both have high yield potentials, downy mildew resistance and high oleic. The latter, however, has a little better seed package and a taller plant height.

Both have the ExpressSun trait, which enables growers to use DuPont Express herbicide for improved weed control options.

JS010HB and JS822HB: The Midland Genetics varieties were first grown in Peirce’s fields last year.

Todd Miller with Kauffman Seed said more farmers were interested in sunflowers for companion cropping and varieties without Neonex seed treatment. The Reno County company is sourcing the seed.

“Last year was the first year we had them up here in Cameron’s plot,” Miller said. “The history on them looks pretty good but it is always interesting to see how they do in our environment.”

Both are listed as 110-day maturity with a good seed package and oil content. However, Miller said, those varieties appear to be maturing sooner. Last year, the 010 variety had the highest oil content, which hit 47 percent.

“That made up some ground on the premium,” he said. 

Shorter season varieties coming down the pipeline

Besides full-season varieties, Cameron Peirce said producers are also searching for shorter season sunflowers that can be double-cropped after wheat.

It wasn’t part of Hayden’s test plots, but Peirce said he has a new, 82-day variety of sunflower he planted June 24.

It is the first year he has planted the Mycogen variety MY8H131CL. It’s proving to bloom even earlier than he expected. He dug up a plant Aug. 3 and stuck it on the edge of the road to help direct farmers into the field day entrance. The field already was blooming after just 50 days.

The shorter-season varieties also give farmers a bigger window for planting.

“If you are too dry, you can wait around and plant it. Or, if you are too wet, you can wait,” he said.

Meanwhile, Lindsborg, Kansas, farmer Karl Esping is the first in the state to try a 72-day variety developed in North Dakota for farmers in Canada.

Esping has planted sunflowers since 2007, when an Easter-weekend freeze damaged thousands of acres in central Kansas, including Esping’s wheat crop.

Sunflowers have been part of his rotation ever since, and Esping continues his search to find the best varieties suitable for Kansas.

The 72-day sunflower variety was originally tested and grown in Saskatchewan.

“The breeder is a good friend of mine, and he said ‘why don’t we try them in Kansas?’”

Esping agreed. He planted it after wheat harvest on Aug. 2. He will harvest it in late October.

If he plants the crop early or late, he could still fit it in his rotation easily, whether it is planting sunflowers after the wheat is harvested or harvesting sunflowers in time to still plant wheat in the fall.

“The theory is, if we can plant them early, go back to wheat,” said Esping, adding he could harvest the crop then in August or September. “And, if we plant them late, still make it, too.” 

Managing sunflowers

Weeds can be a problem in sunflowers at times, Peirce said.

“It does get kind of difficult sometimes to control weeds in sunflowers,” he said.

Peirce recommended starting with the cleanest fields.

He added some of the plots are Clearfield hybrids, which have been developed with a resistant gene to Beyond herbicide. That helps clean up puncture vine, Peirce said, adding “on pigweeds, it’s just so-so.”

Chemicals that are labeled for flowers include Broadaxe, Authority Elite and Zidua, which farmers can apply up to 5 ounces.

“Zidua is effective,” Peirce said. “We haven’t used a lot yet, we’re saving that one back.”

 One farmer said he used BroadAxe and it was OK, but an application of Express had made a bigger difference.

“We have some 2-foot-tall pigweeds, and we’re making them sick with Express,” the farmer said.

Hayden said his sunflowers will be taken to Greenbush Seed in Hutchinson to be sold for birdseed. However, there are other markets, Esping added, including through Mid-Kansas Cooperative based in Moundridge, Kansas, along with oil markets in Goodland and Colorado.

Esping hauls his sunflowers to Colorado Mills, a Lamar company that pays a 2 percent premium for sunflowers grading above 40 percent oil content.

The premiums more than pay for the trucking costs, he said.

Another untapped market is tourism, Cameron Peirce said with a smile.

“The photographers love it,” he said. “If you could figure out a way to capture the market for sunflower pictures, you’d be doing all right. Our fields get used a lot for sunflower pictures.”

Amy Bickel can be reached at 620-860-9433 or


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