With a seed-to-harvest time of about five months, sunflowers are more than just pretty plants. The crop is the third largest grain crop in the country and is used to make sunflower oil and oil cakes for livestock feeding. The seeds are also highly nutritious and favoured by both birds and humans.
Happy Letsitsa, a farmer from Welkom in the Free State, says that sunflowers are an easy commodity to plant. “The input for the planting is very reasonable. Compared to other commodities like maize, sunflower can be planted for much cheaper.”
Letsitsa has been farming with sunflowers for the last four years and says there is a big market for the crop in South Africa. “One of the [advantages] of farming the sunflower is that the market is ready and available. You can always take your sunflowers to OVK and other manufacturers. The market for the oil seeds is very big.”
The opportune time
According to the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), the demand for sunflower oil has has increased by 63% since 2008. In the next decade, BFAP projects that demand will further increase by 41%.
Additionally, South Africa produced 788 500 tons of sunflower seeds in the last season, an amount that is less than half of what the country has the capacity to process.
Therefore the time is right for South African farmers to start new sunflower ventures.
Choose a variety with a high oil content
Sunflower seeds are the key ingredients in sunflower oil, and the amount of oil a sunflower produces is referred to as oil content. Right now the issue of oil content production is rather high on the sunflower industry list, with last season proving to be particularly difficult for oil manufacturers. Across the industry, oil manufacturers found a sharp reduction in the sunflower oil content which placed a lot of strain on the the sector.
Sunflowers need to produce an oil content percentage of 36% or more to be considered good quality. Last season’s harvest fell short of that percentage, putting the industry in peril.
Luckily for South African producers, oil content in sunflower seeds is largely dependent on the cultivar or variety chosen by the farmer. There are around 200 different sunflower seed varieties for producers to choose from, with around 113 classified as high oil hybrids. That means those hybrids can produce an oil content of more than 40%.
Planting and soil
Two of the major advantages of sunflower farming is that the crop tends to be drought resistant and has a low input cost. Like with any crop, sunflower producers need to make sure that their soil is in the right condition for sunflowers to flourish. Sunflowers are known to adapt fairly well to different types of soil and is very efficient at extracting water from the soil.
Herman Janse van Rensburg, a sunflower farmer from the Free State and the winner of the 2019 Free State Young Farmer of the Year award, says that there are certain key factors farmers must consider when planting sunflowers.
“Analyse your soil for the best [crop] health. [Make sure your] seedbeds are firm, fine and weed-free. Regularly inspect your crops for any diseases and make sure that the temperatures do not exceed 30°C.”
Letsitsa advises that sunflower seeds should be planted at a depth of about 25 mm. “The population of the seed depends on each farmer and the planting date. Aspiring farmers should start with soil preparation and comparing the cultivars they need to plant.”
In South Africa, most of the sunflower production in the country is concentrated in the Free State and North West. These provinces make up about 79% of the country’s total sunflower production. The areas where sunflowers are most successful generally have a sandy loam to clay soil type. In this guide released by the KwaZulu-Natal department of agriculture and rural development, most of the country’s sunflowers are produced with a clay percentage of less than 20%, with the traditional soil preferred for these plants having a clay percentage of between 15 and 55%.
The right climate
Letsitsa explains that extreme weather can be challenging for a sunflower crop. “Sunflowers [don’t] grow very [well] when there’s no rain. [But] a lot of rain can also damage sunflowers. The other challenge we can’t control is birds eating the sunflower when it’s ready for harvest.”
To grow sunflowers successfully, the following climate characteristics need to be avoided:
- Soils prone to wind erosion. Sunflowers have difficulty flourishing in the wind during their seedling stage.
- Water-logged soil is also a sunflower deterrent.
- Soils with a pH lower than 4.6 (KCI), or high aluminium levels, should be avoided.
Best time to plant and harvest
Letsitsa explains that sunflowers have a relatively long planting season, which stretches from November to January. ”But if you need to maximise your yield, it is always advisable to plant it early November.”
According to the Agricultural Research Council (ARC), if farmers want to achieve a yield of 2t/ha or more, they need to plant no later than the end of December.
Harvesting time for sunflowers are between late April and mid-May. Janse Van Rensbutg says harvesting on time is very important. “[Farmers must] harvest on time, [because] if you wait too long, [you will] suffer losses.”
In this guide by the department of agriculture, forestry and fisheries, they recommend that sunflower farmers wait until about 80% of their plants turn brown before harvesting.
When the plants are mature and ready to be harvested, the back of the sunflower head turns from green to yellow. The total time these plans take to mature, from the time they are planted, is around 125 to 130 days.
For Janse van Rensburg, sunflowers crops are key. “It has a very high tolerance for drought, and is an essential crop for the manufacturing of a wide range of by-products.”
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