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Published October 21, 2013, 10:39 AM

Storm hits sunflowers

The early October blizzard flattened all or parts of many sunflower fields.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

A lot of sunflower growers in the western Dakotas were looking forward to a wonderful harvest, perhaps their biggest ever. They’re not sure what to expect now.

The early October blizzard flattened all or parts of many sunflower fields. It’s too soon to say, however, how much damage was done. Most other crops had been harvested by the time the storm struck.

“There are some spots in fields that people won’t be able to combine,” says John Sandbakken, executive director of the National Sunflower Association, based in Mandan, N.D.

“But overall, most areas will be able to be combined to some extent. They’ll have to go slower and put headers down lower to pick up (sunflower) heads,” he says. “There’s still a lot of crop that can be salvaged.”

He’s reluctant to estimate how much the storm will cut into yields. The federal government shutdown, which ended Oct. 16, eliminated production reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and contributed to the uncertainty.

So does the weather. A long stretch of warm, dry conditions would help farmers harvest their sunflowers and improve overall yields, Sandbakken and others say.

Key sunflower area

North Dakota is the nation’s leading producer of sunflowers. South Dakota, where sunflower production has been growing steadily, ranks second. Sunflowers are particularly popular in some of the area hit hardest by the October blizzard.

The blizzard was even more distressing because the frost-free September gave sunflowers more time to develop, raising hopes of a bumper harvest.

The blizzard, which some are calling “the sudden snowstorm” because of the speed with which it arrived, continued a strange growing season.

Much of the western Dakotas, which began the spring in drought, received record rains in late spring and early summer. That was a mixed blessing.

On one hand, the precipitation provided crops with substantial soil moisture on which to draw during the growing season, contributing to projected yields of as much as 3,000 pounds per acre.

“The heads are just huge. The seed sizes are just huge,” Sandbakken says.

On the other hand, the wet spring delayed planting and later caused many sunflowers to be planted shallower than usual — the recommended practice when planting late.

But shallow planting caused sunflowers to have a weaker root structure than usual. That made the plants more susceptible to the blizzard, leading many to topple.

Damage from the blizzard was less severe in areas where farmers were able to plant sunflowers deeper, Sandbakken says.

More information

The National Sunflower Associations offers these links that could help producers harvest downed sunflowers.

The first, magazine/details.asp?ID=119&Cat=2, is to a 1998 article that examines how a Nebraska farmer attached long PVC fingers to his combine.

The second,, is to a 2012 article that looks at harvest attachments and conversion kits.