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Sesame fills gap in failed cotton fields

When Claude Otahal lost a significant chunk of his 2008 cotton planting to early-season drought, he looked for a replant option that could tolerate the pre-emergence herbicide already applied and that would give him a better than average chance of making a crop and a profit in what had already started out as a dry year in the Texas Coastal Bend.

Otahal, who farms in Nueces County near Corpus Christi, selected sesame for 600 acres of failed cotton. As he finished harvest on his first-ever sesame crop, the choice seemed a good one.

“We made more than 1,000 pounds per acre on some fields,” Otahal said. “And we got 32 cents a pound for the seed, as much as 35 cents if it was clean and dry — less than 5 percent moisture. Anything above 5 percent is docked.”

He and other farmers who lost cotton to drought last spring grew sesame on contract with Sesaco (Sesame Coordinators). Sesaco has worked with farmers in West Texas and the Rolling Plains, said Jeffrey Stapper, Nueces County Extension agent.

He said contracts and possible premiums give growers an opportunity for a gross income of $200 to $400 per acre. “The expenses of growing sesame are less than other crops. Moreover, sesame can be used as a rotation with cotton, corn, wheat, and peanuts around the state. Sesame also is drought-tolerant as it only needs 25 percent of the water necessary for corn, 33 percent of water needed for grain sorghum, and 50 percent of the water needed for cotton. So in a year with below normal rainfall, this sounded like a crop that had potential.”

“Sesame is very drought tolerant,” Otahal said. “We planted and it came up, and then we had only 2 inches of rain in May. But when it started growing it took off.”

He said a 5-foot tall plant has a taproot that goes about 10 feet deep. “It gets moisture and nitrogen that other plants can’t reach.”

He agreed that sesame was fairly inexpensive to grow. “Counting seed, planting costs, fertilizer and harvest expenses, we had about $60 per acre in the crop.”

Few insects seem to bother sesame. “We had hardly any problem. Whitefly is a possible threat, but we haven’t seen any in the area.”

He used only 10 units of a 22-0-0 fertilizer for “an early-season boost. Fertilizer cost is minimal. That’s a big advantage.”

Sesame also tolerates pre-emergence cotton herbicides. “I had already applied Treflan,” Otahal said. “That’s one reason I decided on sesame.”

He cultivated once along with his fertilizer application.

The biggest challenge is getting a stand. Seed are tiny. “We have to plant shallow. We had to replant one field because we had high winds just after planting. With seed only a half-inch deep, the 30- to 40-mile per hour winds dried the seed out.”

He said growers should look at weather forecasts to gauge best planting time. “Sesame seeds germinate quickly. And we have a large window of opportunity for planting, about 60 days.”

Stapper hopes to conduct a planting date study next year, starting as soon as soil warms up to 65 degrees, maybe as early as the last week in February. “We’ll plant about every two weeks through April,” he said. “Farmers planted a lot of the 2008 crop in May.”

He said most growers used a John Deere MaxEmerge air planter. “They can use anything they can throttle back to plant 2.5 to 3 pounds of seed per acre.”

Otahal said another advantage with sesame is that it appears to be deer and hog resistant. “They’ll walk through sesame to get to a grain field,” he said. “They just don’t seem to bother it.

“It’s a good rotation crop with cotton.”

Harvest is not as difficult as some might have expected. “Shattering was not a big issue with the variety Sesaco provides (Sesaco 32),” Otahal said. “Others are not as shatter resistant.”

He said harvest timing may be important. “We need to let it dry down, so we often wait until after noon to get started. But harvesting sesame is as easy as cutting milo. This first year has been a learning curve.”

He doesn’t expect volunteer sesame to be a problem. “If we plow it under it will not come up.”

Harvey Buehring, Nueces County agent emeritus, said the initial grower meetings sponsored by Sesaco pointed out the challenges and pitfalls for sesame. “They laid it on the line,” Buehring said. “They said first year growers could expect about 500 to 1,000 pounds per acre with better production the second year.

“Farmers did pretty well this first year. Some fields made more than 1,000 pounds per acre and others made about 700.” He said some fields had skips that hurt production.

“It was pretty good for first year production.”

Otahal will plant sesame again next year, possibly double-cropped behind wheat, another crop he’s never planted before. “I’ll reduce cotton acreage next year, perhaps significantly, because of input costs compared to price. We have a thin margin.”

He’s concerned about crop insurance. “Primary crop insurance is not available for sesame.” He hopes the Risk Management Agency will change that limitation.

“That will help improve confidence for lenders,” Buehring said.

Stapper said a three-county area — Nueces, Kleberg and San Patricio — had about 4,000 acres of sesame this year. Nueces county farmers planted about 1,400.

“We had as many as 40,000 failed cotton acres in the area,” he said. “The future of sesame production looks bright and it seems to have a fit in parts of the Coastal Bend. We have learned that sesame does not grow well in wet soils. In fact, poorly drained soils with standing water will result in sesame plant death. However, standing water in local fields is not usually a problem here.”

Jerry Riney, Sesaco representative in Lubbock, expects a significant acreage increase in the Southwest next year. Oklahoma, he said, could expand from 8,000 acres this year to 30,000 or 40,000 acres. “We expect acreage in Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas to increase from 25,000 to 75,000 acres next year,” Riney said.

South Texas acreage could jump to 15,000, up from about 5,000 this year.

Stapper said the world market is growing with China moving from a major exporter to a significant importer. “I am optimistic that this crop has potential in the western areas of the Coastal Bend.”

For more information on sesame visit this Web site:

Riney said growers interested in trying sesame next year should contact him at (806) 778-2193 or online at


TAGS: Cotton
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