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Getting seeds off the ground

As many sunflower growers in western North Dakota gear up to harvest their crops, the executive director of the Mandan-based National Sunflower Association has a tip he said could help farmers maximize their yield.

With some sunflower crops on the southern edge of the state damaged by the recent October surprise snowstorm, John Sandbakken said an innovative and cheap alteration to the combining process could help when plants are, for various reasons, low to the ground.

"We are trying to get the word out to farmers that have sunflowers damaged that there are ways to harvest sunflowers that were lodged or downed by snow and wind," Sandbakken said.

"Back in September of 1998, we had a farmer in Nebraska with leaning or somewhat uprooted sunflowers. He came up with this idea to attach PVC pipe onto his combine. What it does is it will run along the ground and lift up sunflowers so that you can get them into your header."

Sandbakken said the PVC pipe on the combine's header allows it to capture more sunflowers that are near the ground without driving the header directly into the ground.

"That particular farmer was able to minimize the amount of loss he would have had if he had not used the technique," Sandbakken said. "That's just one way that a grower could do something innovative to get at as many sunflowers as possible and fight against lodging."

In a story that ran in an NSA publication 15 years ago, Nebraska farmer Tim Schmeeckle indicated that many of his plants had been tipped or were flattened due to strong winds. Schmeeckle's solution came in the form of six 10-foot lengths of PVC pipe, which he used to form a "V" that ran along the ground between his sunflower rows.

In the story, Schmeeckle -- who said he collected about 50 percent more sunflowers in his yield because of his craftsmanship -- indicated that his variations lifted his combine head approximately 3 feet above ground level, which helped guide the plants.

"This type of alteration would work for plants that aren't completely touching the ground," Sandbakken said. "We're trying to figure out ways to help people salvage as much of their crop as they can.

"Down in South Dakota, we had some farmers who came up with metal extensions that they used when they've had downed sunflowers. When you get into certain situations, it's really amazing the ingenuity that farmers have to figure out different ways to get at their crops."

Because of the recently lifted government shutdown, United States Department of Agriculture reports on North Dakota's sunflower crop have not been available.

"Unfortunately, the (USDA) is going to cancel its October production report," Sandbakken said. "Those numbers will be delayed until Nov. 8, so that will be the first estimate we have of this year's harvested crop. We're hoping to get a crop progress report on Monday.

"In the Dickinson area, a lot of those sunflower plants are fine. But if you go to the south, some of those crops were damaged pretty badly by the snow and wind."

Bryan Horwath
A Wisconsin native, Horwath has been covering news in the Oil Patch of North Dakota since 2012. Horwath currently serves as the senior agriculture and political reporter for The Dickinson Press and, despite the team's tendency to always let him down, remains a diehard Minnesota Vikings fan.
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