Sunflowers for Wildlife

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Photo of many tickseed sunflower flowerheads.
Tickseed sunflower, Bidens aristosa, has many common names. Eleven different species of Bidens have been recorded for Missouri.

Doves, quail, pheasants, turkeys, and numerous songbirds will use your sunflower fields in late summer, fall, and winter.

Variety

Wildlife prefer the small black-seeded oil varieties of sunflower. The sunflower variety most commonly grown for wildlife in Missouri is Peredovik. This variety generally requires 90 to 110 days to mature. It grows to 6 feet tall and produces seed weighing nearly 30 pounds per bushel.

Field location and size

For best wildlife results, the sunflower field should be located close to permanent winter cover. If you want to attract mourning doves, plant the field near a pond with bare shorelines. Doves also prefer tree or shrub rows nearby for roosting. A dead tree in or near the field will be used as a perch by the doves before they land to feed.

Fields as small as 1 acre are attractive to many wildlife species, but sunflower fields of least 5 acres will yield better results. Larger fields help insure that there will be seed available throughout the winter months.

Sunflowers perform best in average to dry soils. Sunflowers will grow on a wide variety of soils, but usually perform poorly in wet soils.

Field preparation

Prepare a good seedbed by plowing and disking. If crop residues or weeds are not a problem, disking is adequate to prepare the seedbed. At this time, the fertilizer and herbicide can be incorporated.

Proper fertilization will promote earlier flowering and increase yields. Follow soil test recommendations on fertilizer application for best results. In the absence of a soil test, fertilizer should be applied at the rate of 200 pounds of 12-12-12 per acre. Fields with adequate phosphorus and potash levels may only require application of nitrogen.

Planting

The best success with planting is achieved using a corn planter fitted with sunflower plates. Plant at the rate of 5 to 6 pounds of seed per acre (18,000 to 30,000 seeds per acre using oil type sunflowers). Row spacing should be 24 to 36 inches, with one seed every 12 to 16 inches in the row to allow good growth.

Sunflowers can also be planted with grain drills, but drills should have some of the holes plugged to achieve correct row spacing. Seed crushing can be a problem with some models of grain drills. Seed should be planted in moist soil at a depth of 1 to 1 1/2 inches.

If a planter or drill is not available, the seed can be hand broadcast. Take care to seed lightly. A dense seeding will cause plant competition and smaller heads with fewer seeds for wildlife.

Sunflower seedlings can tolerate frost, so late April plantings are possible. If you want to attract doves, plant before May 1 so the seed heads mature prior to dove season. If you are not concerned about dove season, then you can plant as late as early July, and they still can provide good food for many other wildlife species.

Good success has been achieved in years of adequate moisture with sunflowers planted as a double crop following wheat harvest. A no-till planter works well for this type of planting.

Weed Control

Although herbicide use is not necessary, it will help control grassy weed competition. This will create bare soil between the rows, which is necessary to attract doves and reduce weed competition with the sunflowers. To achieve desired results and avoid injury to the sunflowers, it is critical that managers follow the label for application rates and usage instructions. Following are some herbicides and application methods that help control grassy weeds in sunflower plantings:

  • Pre-plant incorporated herbicides: Treflan, Prowl 3.3 EC, Sonalan HFP, and Dual Magnum. These must be tilled into the soil before planting.
  • Pre-emergence herbicides: Dual Magnum, Prowl 3.3 EC, and Spartan 4F. These should be applied immediately after planting. Some may require rain for activation.
  • Post-emergence herbicides: Select 2 EC. These may be applied after sunflowers have germinated, but should be applied before grass weeds are too tall.
  • Clearfield sunflowers: Beyond 1 AS can provide good control of many grasses and some broadleaf weeds in sunflower plantings, but should only be used on sunflowers labeled as Clearfield hybrids. Use of Beyond on non-Clearfield sunflowers can cause severe injury or death of plants.

Mechanical control will also help create the needed bare soil conditions. Light harrowing can be used soon after planting to control early weeds, but should not be done from the time of sunflower emergence until plants have four to six leaves. Once the sunflowers have reached this stage, they have developed a strong root system and can be harrowed or rotary hoed for weed control. Harrowing or rotary hoeing in the afternoon, when sunflowers are somewhat wilted, usually causes less damage than early in the day, when sunflowers are stiff and rigid.

Later, cultivation with inter-row implements should be shallow to avoid damaging the sunflower's fibrous root system. Once the sunflowers reach 12 inches in height, the root system has spread out enough that cultivation will do more damage than good. By this height, the sunflowers will effectively out-compete weeds.

Deer Damage

In areas with moderate to high deer densities, heavy browsing can prevent sunflowers from producing seed, and sometimes leads to stand loss. Young sunflower plants and developing seed heads seem especially palatable to deer.

Where deer browsing is a problem, managers should consider using electric fence systems designed to repel deer and deter field damage. Another option is reducing the deer populations through legal harvest.

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