Doves, quail, pheasants, turkeys, and numerous songbirds will use your sunflower fields in late summer, fall, and winter.
What to Plant
Wildlife prefer the small black-seeded oil varieties of sunflower. Peredovik is the most common variety for wildlife in Missouri. It needs 90 to 110 days to mature and grows to 6 feet tall. A bushel of seeds can weigh nearly 30 pounds.
Field Location and Size
Sunflower field should be close to permanent winter cover. Plant the field near a pond with bare shorelines to attract mourning doves. Doves also prefer nearby tree or shrub rows for roosting. Doves will use a dead tree in or near the field to perch before they land to feed.
Sunflower fields of least 5 acres yield best results, although fields as small as one acre can attract wildlife. Larger fields provide seed through winter months.
Sunflowers grow in all types of soil, but do best in average to dry soils. They don't do well in wet soils.
Prepare a good seedbed by plowing and disking. If crop residues or weeds are not a problem, disking is adequate to prepare the seedbed. Add fertilizer and herbicide if needed.
Proper fertilization will promote earlier flowering and increase yields. Follow soil test recommendations on fertilizer application for best results. If you don't have a soil test, apply fertilizer 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.
Use 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. For doves, plant before May 1 so the seed heads mature prior to dove season. For other species, you can plant as late as early July, and still can provide good food for many 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.
Although herbicides are not necessary, they will help control grassy weed competition. This creates bare soil between the rows to attract doves and reduce weed competition with the sunflowers. Follow the label for application rates and usage instructions to avoid injury to the sunflowers. 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 also helps create the needed bare soil conditions. Light harrowing can be used soon after planting to control early weeds, but should not be done after the plants begin growing until they 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, 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.
Heavy deer browsing can prevent sunflowers from producing seed, and sometimes leads to stand loss. Young sunflower plants and developing seed heads seem especially tasty to deer.
Electric fence systems can help repel deer and deter field damage. Another option is to reduce the deer populations through legal harvest.