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Sunflowers surprise in a dry season

October 2016

We could not actually believe our eyes at the yields which returned off a field that was seriously drought affected this season. The struggling sunflower plants only grew to about one metre tall and their heads were so small…and then we had one good rainfall!

Wow! What a sight it was to see these little struggling plants respond after the watering and a few days of cool weather. The little pips began to fill, and fill…until we could not believe our eyes. From thinking we would have to just let the livestock eat what they could in that field, we instead harvested a decent 1 t/ha crop! For many farmers in the past two seasons of drought and extreme heat, it has been their sunflower crops which have been the light at the end of the tunnel. (You can read the article about this online: https://www.grainsa.co.za/ sunflowers-talk-of-the-town-at-50th-nampo).

Sunflowers are an important field crop
No longer can sunflowers be tagged an ‘orphan’ crop as they were for some time. In the last two decades it has become increasingly more economically favourable to grow sunflowers with growing market opportunity as a useful oilseed used mainly by animal protein feed manufacturers and from the demand for sunflower oil. The crop also has great value in a crop rotation system.

In fact nowadays it is classed as the third most important field crop in South Africa after maize and wheat. By adding sunflower to an existing crop rotation, pest problems such as stalk borer and nematodes can be reduced. The shorter growing season also means the crop may be planted later and harvested earlier than other crops such as maize. A sunflower plant is particularly efficient at up-taking water from the soil profile especially in sandy loam soils which is why it tolerates drier conditions better than other crops and explains the astounding results experienced by farmers in the drought stricken regions this season.

Growth and development
The sunflower is a broadleaf plant which emerges four to five days after the seed has been planted about an inch deep in warm soil. This can take a few days longer in cooler soils or if the seed is planted deeper. The biggest problem, which has been highlighted in a number of previous articles, is the crusting which can form on the surface of the soil.

Soil crusting makes it difficult for the sunflower seedlings to push out of the soil. It is very important that farmers manage this process with care. They grow best on well drained soils and perform well on sandy soils but they do not like very wet soils. Post emergence, sunflowers grow very quickly producing their large rough leaves and some cultivars can reach a height of up to six feet. There is nothing quite as beautiful as a field of sunflowers in full bloom! Unfortunately the fully seeded sunflower heads are also very appealing to birds and farmers are experiencing many challenges in dealing with these marauding birds particularly in fields close to built-up, urban areas.

Each sunflower head, the proper term is inflorescence, is actually made up of two different types of flowers. The yellow ‘petals’ around the edge of the head are in fact individual flowers called ‘ray flowers’ while the ‘face’ of the sunflowers is made up of hundreds of tiny little ‘disc flowers’ which form into the fruit (achene) which we call the sunflower seed.

Commercially grown sunflowers are generally self-pollinating which means they do not require a pollinating insect; but where a farmer is growing seed sunflower, you will notice that at a point in the growing season he will import many bee hives to facilitate the pollination taking place between the male and female plants. (There are some farmers who still believe that a higher bee population does boost the yield of their commercial sunflowers, so this is a good reason to look after our bee populations!)

Sunflower has conservative fertilisation needs but this is obviously dependent on soil analysis information. The crop does respond well to nitrogen applications. Another advantage of sunflower is that its own vigorous growth makes it highly competitive with most weeds. Weeds must be controlled pre-emergence or early post-emergence, with most farmers using a combination of herbicide and mechanical cultivation to achieve this. While you are nurturing your crop it is necessary to constantly monitor the markets in order to fix the best price possible.

The market place
The macro-economic factors that influence the price of sunflower in South Africa are primarily the Rand/Dollar exchange rate and Brent crude oil price per barrel. Other factors which influence price are the supply and demand which means we must consider the stock of sunflower in South Africa and cross-reference with the rainfall experienced especially in the North West Province, one of the main growing regions locally. Imports of vegetable oil into the country also affect the price of locally grown sunflower which is why farmers need to be alert to the sunflower import parity price. The high demands for oilcake/meal in protein feed rations also see large quantities imported. These imports explain why international commodity prices affect local prices so much.

The role of your producer organisation: Grain SA
As farmers we do not always have time to monitor and lobby for import tariffs which protect our local production. This is why we need the services of producer organisations like Grain SA. Agricultural economists and conservation farming specialists like those employed by Grain SA, have the focus, know-how and skills to monitor the macro-economic environment and lobby on our behalf. They are a constant source of information for farmers and a channel of information to policy makers and government departments on our behalf. Don’t ever make the mistake of thinking that a producer organisation is not very necessary or able to make significant contribution to your on-farm sustainability. It is up to every farmer to talk to his consumer organisation and to know the personnel.

Find out how they can help you at farm level and tell them about the challenges you are facing. This is the heartbeat of our organisation, Grain SA. If they can’t make a difference to you, it’s because you have stopped talking to them about your needs!

If you want more detail on sunflower production there is a useful Concise Sunflower Production Guide made available online for producers by the Department of Agriculture & Rural Development, KZN on this link: click here

Article submitted by Jenny Mathews, Pula Imvula contributor. For more information, send an email to jenjonmat@gmail.com.


Publication: October 2016

Section: Pula/Imvula