Facing the sun: Sunflowers a good fit for Cooks
The sunflowers in Casey Cook’s field north of Prospect Valley, Colo., are just starting to reveal their trademark yellow petals, still tucked tightly into the flower heads.
In about two weeks, Cook’s field will be awash in yellow before the long drying process begins, leading up to a November harvest.
Cook and his dad, Dennis, milked cows north of Hudson for a number of years. With 200 head in 2013, the choices were to get big or get out and with the expense of getting big, they got out. That’s when they planted their first field of sunflowers, along with the alfalfa, wheat and corn they raise as well.
“Two hundred was nothing,” he said. “It was always good but in today’s world, we decided to quit.”
Despite his occasional grumbling, the younger Cook likes raising sunflowers, one of their more lucrative crops. With seed prices comparable to corn, it’s pricey, but they are able to market just down the road to his uncle, Leon Zimbelman, an intermediary with Red River Commodities helping to make it pencil.
From Zimbelman’s bins, the seeds go to Colby, Kan., where they’re cleaned and processed before heading to Lubbock, Texas, and eventually end up marketed as Bigs brand. Zimbelman said some of the foreign market has been lost to competition from growers in Bulgaria, China, Argentina and Israel. However, the confection sunflowers grown domestically are done so specifically for Red River and are a superior product.
Cook said growing confection sunflowers can be challenging, with no labeled herbicides for weed control. Harvest, though, with the large stalks pulling wires from combines and poking holes in tires, is more so.
“We have kind of a love hate relationship with these stupid things,” Cook said jokingly. “We like to plant them, watch them grow, but they’re hard to harvest.”
Cook strip tills the sunflowers behind wheat right after spraying, a practice he said keeps the weeds at bay until the large canopy the flowers create can serve as weed control. Planted at a rate of about 15 to 17,000 seeds to the acre, they take significantly less water than corn and are able to access deep water and nutrients with a long tap root.
They follow the flowers with corn and Dennis said the corn yields benefit from the rotation. He guesses this is due to the loosening of the soil from the hefty stalk and root but laughed and said he has no clue as to the cause but he likes the yields.
Processors prefer sunflowers at about 12 percent moisture but Cook said at this level, they’re dry and drooping, difficult to combine. The oily dust will also settle on ledges and begin smoking, making the possibility for combine fires very real. The sunflowers are also susceptible to bird damage, wind, hail and snow.
A flock of blackbirds, he said, can eat a tremendous number of seeds in a day. He avoids planting the flowers near trees and water, the trifecta for happy blackbirds and high losses for the Cooks. When the sunflowers are at 10 percent bloom, he has them aerial sprayed for head moth, a nasty bug that lays eggs in the back of the head, rotting it and leaving the entire head on the ground as a mushy mess.
Waste at harvest is hard to avoid with heads knocked over on to the ground. Cook uses a wheat head with pans that stick out about 4 feet that he said does the job. He’s been raising around 3,500 pounds per acre so going slow to reduce waste is well worth it.
“We have to cut at one and a half miles per hour,” he said. “It’s so slow. You take in so much trash it’s hard for the combine to clean it. It takes a lot to get them clean.”
Cook said the sunflowers will bloom in about two weeks. It’s a veritable invitation for lookie-loos, photographers, and high school seniors taking yearbook photos but he said he doesn’t mind. In 2014, he found a photographer from National Geographic shooting one of his fields. He asked her to email him the photo and, by all accounts, it probably does belong in the magazine.
The coming weeks will usher in blooming sunflower fields all around Prospect Valley and will begin the long wait until harvest and the bounty — and flat tires — it brings. ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.