Cotton continues to pay most of the bills in the Texas Southern Plains, but a combination of low prices, dry weather and May hailstorms resulted in some traditional cotton acreage being diverted to other crops this year.
And farmers new to some of those crops may encounter a few challenges as they prepare for harvest.
Sunflowers, for instance, will not wait too long after they hit physiological maturity until test weights begin to fall.
“Farmers need to be ready to harvest when the sunflowers are mature,” says Calvin Trostle, Extension agronomist at the Texas A&M Research and Extension Center in Lubbock.
“If sunflowers are planted late, growers may need those fall rains to finish the crop.”
“There is no reason to delay when the crop is ready,” he says. “At physiological maturity, when the bracts on the back of the flower turn black and moisture is in the low teens, it's time to harvest.”
He says growers may wait for a day or two since “most don't have drying facilities. But if moisture drops to 6 percent, they lose test weight.”
Trostle says confectionery sunflowers test at 24 pounds per bushel; oilseed sunflowers test at 28 to 32 pounds.
Trostle says yield potential remains uncertain. “We'll have a better idea in September, but most of the crop looks pretty good.”
He says new growers have asked questions about production this summer.
“We've heard concerns about the sunflower head moth and the dectestexanas girdler. This pest bores into the stalk and can bend it down so that the head falls off. Growers may not realize they have infestations until they harvest and see heads on the ground.”
Trostle says some fields showed up to 50 percent infestation levels this summer.
He says growers also express concern about the sunflower head moth, “the boll weevil of sunflowers,” and poor performance of crops that follow sunflowers.
“Low fertility, especially with a new grower, may cause the problems with subsequent crops,” Trostle says. He recommends growers add adequate nutrients for sunflowers and not mine the soil for later crops.
Water availability also poses some problems for crops following sunflowers. Trostle recommends early planting to take advantage of usual spring moisture and to get the crop off the ground before fall rains begin to replenish soil moisture for the next season's crops.
“We recommend early April planting,” Trostle says. “Yields likely will be better and we save moisture at the end of the season.”
He says an early April planting will have the crop ready for harvest by mid-August. Fall rains will then seep into the ground and hold for spring crops.
“If sunflowers are planted late, growers may need those fall rains to finish the crop,” Trostle says.
He does warn that early planting may make the crop more vulnerable to the head moth.
Farmers planted grain sorghum on most of the hailed out cotton acreage. “About two-thirds went into grain sorghum,” Trostle says. “And much of that crop has had no rain.”
He says in some cases, stands that are too thick will hinder production. “Especially on dryland acreage, too many seed per acre will hurt,” he says. “At 50,000 plants per acre, the crop will do fine, if it gets rain. Otherwise, it will produce leaves and stems but will struggle to make heads.”
He says at even 30,000 to 35,000 plants per acre, dryland sorghum could be risky.
“Two seed per foot of row in 30 inch rows equals 26,000 seeds per acre. It's hard to cut back that much, but if rainfall is adequate, the plants will respond and capture yield potential.”
He says a lot of dryland sorghum will fail. “Some growers are considering baling the crop for hay, but, if plants have been sitting for a month, they may have continued to take up nitrates. Nitrate poisoning could be possible.”
Trostle says soybean studies this summer appear to re-enforce data from last year that show early planting will increase yield potential.
“We've been looking at various maturity groups and planting dates and have found that planting into June will result in lower yields.”
He says specialists are “not gung-ho about planting soybeans south of Hale County. Some farmers may opt for soybeans if they used Staple herbicide the year before on cotton. We don't recommend sorghum behind Staple.”
Trostle says west Texas peanut farmers are doing all they can to keep up with irrigation needs. “August rainfall brought as much as two inches of rain to some areas, but moisture was variable.”
In some cases, he says, farmers are running short of water and “can't keep up with crop demand. They are setting priorities and cutting back on irrigation on some crops to make more available for peanuts. They're just trying to keep the peanuts wet.”
Trostle says ongoing research will look at peanut plants' response to nitrogen fertilization and the relationship of nodulation and nitrogen. He says farmers need to scout for nodulation to determine how well inoculants work.
“Proper use of inoculants is important for peanuts,” he says. “We've found 20 percent to 25 percent of the fields in the Southern Plains are under-nodulated. Some have not nodulated at all.”
He says a three-year study of nitrogen and nodulation should present a clearer picture of nitrogen fertilization advantages.
Trostle says guar, another alternative crop a few Southern Plains growers tried this year, holds promise. “It's a good rotation for cotton,” he says.