grain; sunflower; rotation

Sunflower’s surprising potential

12 May 2023

by Nico van Burick

South Africa’s sunflower industry has a bright future ahead of it if farmers begin to view it as a preferred crop instead of just a last resort.

Experts at a recent sunflower seed symposium agree that the production and yield of sunflower seed in South Africa can increase significantly if it is cultivated with greater caution and as a preferred crop. Despite South Africa falling under the top ten countries that cultivate sunflowers, the local production thereof is not internationally competitive. 

Prof Ferdi Meyer, the Managing Director for the Bureau for Food and Agricultural Policy (BFAP), pointed out that South Africa cultivated a record harvest of 1,1 million tonnes on 850 000 hectares in 1999. In the last 20 years, however, production has gone sideways and plantings ranged around 500 000 hectares.

This is not in line with the international situation where total production has risen from 25 million tonnes to 50 million tonnes in 20 years. Better yields were the biggest contributor to this growth, and it raises the question of why there was not a similar trend locally. There is the necessary market space to press a much larger crop and the consumption of sunflower oil increases annually by an average of 2.5%.

“This is where competitiveness comes in,” he said. “We need to get our local industry competitive so that we could rather press the local product instead of importing oil.”

He further said that it costs significantly more than the world average to produce a tonne of sunflower seeds locally. The world average is about R1 500 per tonne versus about as much as R2 800 per tonne in South Africa. The biggest contributor to these higher costs is the local fertiliser prices. 

South Africa also does not compare well with its competitors with regard to yields and oil content. South Africa’s average oil content lies between 36% and 42% while the norm for other countries like Russia and Argentina lies between 45% and 54%. Between 2016 and 2019, the average yield in Argentina was 2,58 tonnes per hectare while the average yield for the same cultivar locally was 1,77 tonnes per hectare.  

Yields have increased slightly in South Africa over the years, but oil contents have decreased. He believes that if a premium is paid for higher oil content, producers will be encouraged to not only try to increase yields but also emphasise the oil content.

“Bigger profitability can serve as motivation for farmers to treat sunflowers as a preferred crop that is grown at the right time, with the right fertiliser and the right practices.”

Cash crop versus catch crop

Corné Louw, the head of Applied Economics & Member Services at Grain SA, said if the producer views sunflowers as a full-fledged cash crop instead of a catch crop, he will be successful. “Plant at the right time and it will take care of you both in terms of yield and oil. We are probably now also entering a drier cycle and then sunflowers will come into their own again because in drier, warmer years it performs much better than other crops because it is more tolerant in such conditions.”

Dr Erhard Briedenhann, Chairperson of the Oilseeds Advisory Committee, said there needs to be economic competition with other crops and, with a premium for higher oil content, sunflowers will be more competitive. “There are, of course, problems with diseases, such as Sclerotinia, but we do a lot of research to get these problems solved with, among other things, the right farming practices. It also seems that there is still a lot of research that can be done on the application of fertilisers. Because it is such an expensive means of production, its optimal use can make a big difference in costs.”

Valentine sunflowers

Kobus van Zyl, a Senior Agriculturalist at Omnia, said that sunflowers are usually a farmer’s choice if he cannot manage to plant maize or soya beans. “Then he quickly scrambles to get his hands on seed and many times it is not the best cultivar, and then it is sometimes planted until February. I call them valentine sunflowers and you cannot expect too much from them.

“Farmers who cultivate sunflowers as a main crop are the ones who are successful with high yields and profits. It is also incredibly important as a rotation crop with maize. Use the best technology possible, the best possible cultivar, the best possible data, the best possible weed control and if you focus on sunflowers as your preferred crop, you will not be disappointed.”

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