Farmers considering alternate crops to augment traditional enterprises, to add more drought-tolerant options to reduce production risk or to take advantage of niche markets need to do their homework before putting seed in the ground.
Prospective producers need to consider a lot of questions, says Travis Miller, professor, associate head and Extension program leader, Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service. Miller, speaking this week at the 24thannual Texas Plant Protection Association Conference, said farmers may need more drought-tolerant options, especially if current conditions persist into planting time. “But they should ask if the crop has a market, a niche opportunity, a profitable price and if the new crop is compatible with current enterprises or if it might bring different environmental and pest issues,” Miller said.
That said, he offered several possibilities that could fit into Texas production systems.
Guar, a crop that has a long history in Texas, has made something of a resurgence since the gum made from the plant is used in the hydraulic fracturing process employed in natural gas drilling operations. It’s also used in ice cream and makeup, Miller said. Meal can be used as a feed.
Price has increased from $1 to $2 a pound in 2012 with price jumping to above $10 at one point, but that was due to market manipulation. Miller said demand for guar has increased by more than 17 percent annually for the past decade. India and Pakistan account for 70 percent of world production.
Dryland yield potential may reach 1,200 pounds per acre. Production is more high risk in humid conditions, even under center pivot irrigation. Insect pests and disease may be issues.
Miller said the United States could use as much as 500,000 acres of guar to counter market schemes.
Cowpeas offer another alternative crop opportunity. “Cowpeas are heat and drought tolerant,” Miller said. They are short-season with some varieties maturing in as little as 60 days. “It needs well-drained soil.”
Uses are varied, from forage to human consumption. A few pests may offer production problems as well as diseases such as bacterial blight.
Guayule is another crop with a history of production in Texas. Guayule is made to produce rubber and was widely grown in Texas during World War II. Tire companies are interested in it now, he said.
“Guayule will yield with less than 25 inches of annual rainfall. But we need processing plants.”
Sunflowers offer growers another drought-tolerant option and have seen increased acreage in Central Texas, down in the Valley, West Texas and North Central Texas, Miller said. “We now have just less than 100,000 acres in Texas, confectionery and oilseed varieties. It has an extensive root system that allows it to tolerate a little drier climate.”
Miller said anyone considering growing sunflowers must be prepared to employ an “intense scouting program. Birds may also be a problem.”
Miller thinks sunflower acreage will increase with mostly the confectionery varieties.
Sesame is another drought-tolerant crop with about 100,000 acres planted in Texas each year. Sesame also is mostly grown for confectionery uses. “It needs well-drained soil and grows well in lower rainfall areas.”
Production issues could include diseases such as cotton root rot. Emergence also could be an issue with the extremely small seed, especially if soil is crusted.
“Sesame does not host nematodes,” Miller said, “and hogs and deer do not like it.”
Since 2011, multi-peril crop insurance has been available for sesame. Price has also been good.
Demand for castor has also increased significantly, offering an opportunity for some Texas farmers. Miller said castor was grown on significant Texas acreage from 1938 through 1972, but demand for castor oil declined. Now, industrial use has increased, spurring demand.
A crucial concern for producers, Miller said, is that “castor seed is toxic before it’s processed. Producers must have separate harvest equipment for castor.”
Currently, India controls the market, he said. “The United States needs castor.”
These and other alternate crops may offer producers new opportunities, Miller said, but potential producers need to consider “the logistics of production, harvest, markets, pest control and merging with current crops.”