I drilled a cover crop at a 45-degree angle following wheat harvest. The next day, I planted 30-inch row sunflowers.
This year I copied an idea that I learned about through a webinar. The idea was to grow a cash crop within a cover crop. The cover crop and the cash crop would work in tandem, cooperate and allow a cash crop to be harvested.
2013 was the first year that I tried adding a companion crop (crimson clover, arrowleaf clover, cow peas, mung beans, soybeans, buckwheat and radishes) to my double-crop sunflowers. I also had a field that was planted conventionally. I finally got the results put together.
My cost per acre of growing the 64 acres of conventional double-crop sunflowers was $250.31. My cost per acre of growing the 237.4 acres of double-crop sunflowers with a companion cover crop was $189.69.
The yield of the conventional acres was 1,281 pounds an acre and the companion acres was 518 pounds an acre.
I made $5.89 an acre on my conventional acres. I lost $86.09 an acre on my companion acres.
The conventional acres were in an upland field and given more fertilizer after heavy rains. They drained well and did not stunt. The supplemental N was streamed on and foliar micronutrients were sprayed with the Select.
Tissue tests before and after indicated a boost of nitrogen and micros in the conventional flowers. These plants remained stunted but filled a good head after losing their yellow color. The companion flowers were all on flat, poor drained soil and stunted or drowned by nearly 20 inches of rain. Supplemental fertilizer would have fallen largely on bare ground. It was not added.
Yield monitor data showed that on a ridge separating an 80 from a 40 (old fence line), the yield was more like the conventional. This encouraged me for 2014. It's my hope that, given normal rainfall, I can raise the same yield in both fields this year, and boost soil health.
I might suggest that I'm trying it again because I think the limiting factor was the field. I'm adding side-by-sides in 2014 to offset this flaw from 2013, so if it's wet or dry, I should get better tests. Every field this year will be split in half. Half will have companion flowers and half will not.
If my yield was allowed to double to 1,036 pounds an acre on the companions, the profit would have been $12 an acre better than the conventional acres. Thus, if equal yields are achieved in 2014, the companions could "out-earn" the conventionals. I think the rain did damage the yield by 50 percent or more in the companion acres.
The costs that I kept track of were burn-down, including pre-emerge chemicals ($41.75 conventionals vs. companions), grass chemicals post-emerge ($6 conventionals vs $8.55 companions), bug chemicals ($19.79 conventionals vs 0.21 cents companions), bulk fertilizer and innoculant ($57.04 conventionals vs. $30 companions), mixing seed (zero conventionals vs. $1.10 companions), cover crop seed (zero conventionals vs $34.75 companions), flower seed (both $32.80), harvesting (both $41.15), starter fertilizer (both $25.37) and supplemental fertilizer ($26.45 conventionals vs .08 cents companions).
We sold all seed to Delaney Seed. They provided the trucks. They did not pay an oil premium, but I later determined that I had 47 percent oil content (premiums are usually offered above 40 percent). The local price plus oil premium wouldn't have beaten the seed company's price. Free trucking is hard to beat, also.
Who knows the value of the cover crops to the ground/soil health? Who knows the value of the sunflower roots and the other roots breaking the deep soil and mining nutrients? Who knows the value of the shade? Who knows the value of the long-term weed suppression? Is it more environmentally friendly to reduce chemical and fertilizer usage? Tapping into nature's secrets may not be easy, but it sure is fun.
We will add soil tests before planting 2014's double-crop sunflowers and soil tests following sunflower harvest. The data we collect should go a long way toward learning how to properly grow companion flowers and maximizing profit.
Mark Pettijohn is a no-till farmer in Saline and Dickinson counties. He has an accounting degree from the University of Kansas. He has three children - Gareth, 14; Chloe, 12; and Lincoln, 11.