Sesame is drought tolerant but not drought proof

The following article was published on August 15, 2011 at High Plains Journal

By Doug Rich

As Mark Graf walked the fields of his southwest Oklahoma farm this summer the only green crop in sight was sesame. This relatively new crop is grown in arid regions around the world, which makes it a good fit for the High Plains.

SESAME GENETICS—The U.S. is the only country in the world to have shatter-resistant sesame varieties. The U.S. is also the only country to harvest sesame seed mechanically. (Journal photo by Doug Rich.)

When Danny Peeper, SESACO Seed Company, travels across the area promoting sesame he emphasizes that it is a drought-tolerant crop with a really deep root system and it is very forgiving as far as when it gets rain. By the first week in July Graf's crop had been in the ground for over a month with no rain, but Peeper said it could still make a crop if it rained.

SESACO contracted 120,000 acres of sesame in Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas this year with over half of those acres in Oklahoma. Globally, Asia produces 65 percent of the sesame with the three largest producers being India, China, and Myanmar.

Third year

This summer is Graf's third year planting sesame on his farm near Colony, Okla. The planting window for sesame is wide, extending from May to July. It is a warm-season crop similar to cotton and needs warm soil temperatures at planting. Graf uses a no-till air seeder to plant 5 pounds of seed per acre.

"Where sesame goes in my crop rotation depends on the year and the summer," Graf said. "Most of what I have tried has been on ground that was laid out and did not have anything growing on it over the winter. I did try to double crop some last summer behind a wheat crop because we had a rain."

Graf said 15-inch row spacing is recommended for sesame, but last year he experimented with a new variety that does not branch out as much and used 7.5-inch row spacing. The crop reached the canopy stage quickly with 7.5-inch row spacing, and the weed pressure was virtually nothing.

In 2010 Oklahoma State University conducted row spacing studies with four different sesame varieties planted on 7.5-inch and 15-inch rows. There were no significant differences observed between varieties or row spacing.

Weed control

"You don't want to have a lot of weed seed because the sesame seed is so small--it is about the same size as the weed seed," Graf said.

Weed control is important because the crop is slow growing the first four weeks after planting and is not competitive with early-season weeds. OSU recommends a burndown application of glyphosate and 2,4-D before planting in no-till sesame. A pre-emergence herbicide application is recommended. Graf uses Dual Magnum, the only pre-emergence herbicide labeled for sesame.

Graf has been no-till farming for seven years and plants sesame with a no-till air seeder equipped with a small seed meter. He said any planter that can handle alfalfa seed should be able to handle sesame seed. Sesame seed is very small with 140,000 to 170,000 seeds per pound.

"No-till works the best because it is like planting alfalfa; you want a firm seedbed to be able to plant the seed a half-inch deep," Graf said. "Set it for a half inch and it stays a half inch."

Peeper said nearly 90 percent of the sesame in Oklahoma is planted no-till. That percentage is nearly reversed in Texas where they are just beginning to adopt no-till practices.

In his operation Graf streams on 50 to 70 pounds per acre of liquid nitrogen pre-plant. OSU recommends nitrogen rates depending on yield goals. If a producer's historic yield is 800 to 1,000 pounds per acre, then 40 to 60 pounds of nitrogen per acre is appropriate. If your yield goal is 1,500 pounds per acre, then 80 to 100 pounds of nitrogen per acre is the recommendation.

The first year Graf planted sesame his yield was 750 pounds per acre. Last year with just 4 inches of rain the yield was 400 pounds per acre. Those 4 inches of rain came in one event the first week of July.

There are basically no disease or insect pests for sesame, which makes it a relatively low input crop. Graf said input costs are lower for sesame than for wheat production.


Sesame is ready for harvest after the first killing frost. Sesame is self-defoliating and does not need to be sprayed with a desiccant like cotton.

Because the seed is small, the combine settings need to be slowed down. Graf slows the cylinders down and raises the reel as high out of the way as he can.

The U.S. is the only country that has shatter-resistant sesame varieties and the only country to mechanically harvest sesame. Other varieties ripen and the seed falls out of the pod.

"Everyone else harvests it by hand and lets it dry down," Graf said.

Shatter-resistant varieties were developed by SESACO. Peeper said they have an ongoing breeding program that screens thousands of varieties and tries to introduce one or two new varieties every year.

"We try to keep the shatter-resistant genetics inside the U.S. where they can be protected by patent rights and where the U.S. farmer can benefit from them," Peeper said. "In a global market we want the advantage with the U.S. farmer."

All of the sesame produced in the U.S. goes to a processing facility in Hobart, Okla. This state-of-the-art plant has the largest capacity of any sesame processing plant in the world. The plant cleans the seed to a purity of 99.97 percent, bags the seed, and sells it as whole seed. Peeper said the confectionery market for whole seed is their largest market. A small amount of sesame seed is crushed for oil.

Sesame contracts were for $40 per hundredweight this year. That compares very well to milo and corn even with record high commodity prices. However, it does not compete very well with $2 cotton, and a lot of acres that might have gone to sesame went to cotton this year in Texas.

Graf said by the last of June his sesame crop is usually 6 inches tall and is a solid mat of green but not this year. He had 2 inches of rain when they planted and that has been about it for moisture. By the first week of July his 860 acres of sesame was still alive but needed rain badly. If he continues to have 100-degree temperatures with 30-miles-per-hour winds, the crops will not survive.

"Sesame is a decent alternative crop that is drought tolerant but not drought proof," Graf said.

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